Is this airline downgrade disaster a lost cause?

By | July 30th, 2013

Christopher Parypa /
Christopher Parypa /
I’ve been struggling with this case for months and am about to place it in the “can’t be fixed” file. But before I do, I wanted to run it past you.

This one’s got it all: peculiar airline math, an intransigent online travel agency, a credit card dispute and, of course, a referral to a collection agency.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Meet Steve Cary, who was flying from San Francisco to Shanghai last March. He’d booked his reservation through Orbitz on a US Airways flight operated by EVA Airways.

One more thing: Cary had a seat in business class the entire trip. Total cost: $4,941. I’m told that’s a pretty good fare.

But the flights were anything but smooth, he says. On at least two occasions, EVA couldn’t locate his reservation because of a miscommunication between US Airways and EVA. (Don’t even get me started on the joys of codesharing. Not going there today.) A ticket agent fumbled around for what seemed like an hour before finding his reservation and issuing a valid ticket.

Then, when he tried to check in for his connecting flight from Taipei back to San Francisco, an agent delivered more bad news. “She informed me that business class was completely sold out and that I would have to accept an economy class seat,” he says.

Cary accepted the economy class seat — what choice did he have? — and decided to take the matter up with US Airways when he returned. At first, he asked for a full refund for his roundtrip ticket. The airline refused.

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Then he disputed his credit card charge with Chase to the tune of $2,500, which was what he calculated the business class seat from Taipei to San Francisco to be worth.

“Since US Airways did not respond to Chase’s request and my dispute of the $2,500 by Chase’s deadline for such disputes with a vendor, Chase credited me the full $2,500 and considered my dispute satisfactorily resolved,” he says.

Case closed? Nope.

He explains what happened next:

Subsequent to this matter being “resolved” by Chase, I received a series of phone calls (sometimes several months apart) from Orbitz asking me to pay the $2,500 balance due.

Each time they called, I asked them to tell me (i) the price of each leg of the trip, and (ii) the price difference between the Economy-Plus type seat that EVA put me in and the business class ticket that I paid for, had they been booked on the same date of my original booking through Orbitz.

They told me that US Airways was not able to provide them with this information. On March 27, I received a letter from Receivable Management Services, a collection agency which is seeking to collect $2,525.00 on behalf of Orbitz.

I contacted Orbitz on Cary’s behalf. An Orbitz representative called me immediately and explained that Cary’s math was wrong. You can’t just divide the cost of a roundtrip, business-class ticket in half and demand a refund from the airline. Orbitz still owed US Airways the fare, and was well within its rights to try to collect the $2,500 it says had been wrongfully refunded by Chase.

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I agreed with Orbitz that the case could probably be remedied with a simple explanation, as opposed to the series of denials Cary claims he’d received. But a few more weeks went by and according to Cary, Orbitz didn’t furnish Cary with any of the promised details. Again, he turned to me for help.

I contacted US Airways on Cary’s behalf. It has not responded.

I’ve been back and forth with Cary several times in the last few weeks. It seems that both the online travel agency and the airline are taking a hard line in this dispute. I agree with him that he’s entitled to some kind of fare adjustment, since he was downgraded from business class to economy — just maybe not $2,500. It’s up to US Airways to show him its math, which is something it hasn’t done yet, according to Cary.

What am I missing here? Should I contact Orbitz and US Airways again, pressing them to resolve this, or should I advise Cary to pay his bill? What would you do?

Update (11 a.m.): Orbitz has agreed to contact Cary with an explanation. I hope to have another update soon.

What should I do with Steve Cary's case?

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