How much does my airline owe me for a broken seat?

By | June 5th, 2013

lufthansaElite-level frequent travelers who whine if their lie-flat business seat doesn’t recline all the way are regularly and shamelessly mocked on this site.

I typically have little sympathy for entitled crybabies who can’t lean all the way back, while the folks in economy class are wedged into their seats and can barely move. It’s particularly irritating when it turns out these platinum-plated complainers either didn’t pay for the ticket themselves, footing the bill with their employer’s money, or got to it by unethically “hacking” the system.

So when Andrew Buffen came to me with a problem with reclining seats on a Lufthansa codeshare flight from Chicago to Frankfurt, I almost reflexively sent it to the “case dismissed” file.

But I didn’t.

The lie-flat seats in Lufthansa’s business class are extraordinarily generous, with between 57 and 60 inches of legroom. Even when they don’t recline, they’re kinda over the top, in comparison to the 234 economy-class seats which have an inhumane 31 inches of pitch.

But then Buffen filled in some of the details. He wasn’t asking for himself, but his parents. They’d cashed in some of their own frequent flier miles to get them to Europe. Plus, it was an overnight flight, and it would have been nice if Mom and Dad had been able to use the seats as intended.

“When they boarded the plane the seats did not work,” he says. “They were not able to recline. The attendants did nothing so they had to sleep upright on the way over. My parents also mentioned that the flight attendants were very rude.”

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This clearly wasn’t the case of a gold flier throwing a tantrum. I imagine my own parents and what might have been their reasons for trying to upgrade to business class. Since Buffen’s parents weren’t also upset that their Chardonnay wasn’t chilled to the right temperature (another sure sign you’re dealing with a serial complainer) I decided to try to help Buffen’s folks.

First, I recommended they send a brief, polite email to Lufthansa. Because of various codeshare issues, the grievance went to United, and Buffen decided to make a phone call instead of writing. Lufthansa’s contract of carriage, its legal agreement between Buffen’s parents and the airline, doesn’t make any warranties about the usability of its seats, but a guarantee is certainly implied.

“They offered me either 3,000 miles each or a $125 travel certificate each,” he says.

I asked what he thought of the offer. “Crazy,” he said.

I suggested he appeal. He did.

“Now they’re offering 10,000 miles or a $300 travel certificate each,” he says.

That’s better. But is it enough?

Buffen’s parents burned 100,000 miles each for their flights to Europe in business class. So in the final analysis, United and Lufthansa are saying the ability to recline the seat — or, more specifically, being prevented from doing so — is worth about 10 percent of the value of your flight.

The rude flight attendants? Goes with the territory, apparently.

United may raise the ante again if Buffen calls. Or not.

But I do wonder: Would an airline apply the same calculus to a first-class seat? How about an economy class seat? If my seat in steerage doesn’t recline, should I be able to get 10 percent of the fare back?

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