Is this airline downgrade disaster a lost cause?

Christopher Parypa / Shutterstock.com
Christopher Parypa / Shutterstock.com
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.
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Case dismissed: They downgraded Dad and now they’re ignoring me

Sriram Singa paid $929 for a business class ticket from Chennai to Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Airlines.

It’s not that Singa demands first-class treatment. The ticket was for his father, who suffers from back problems, and on the 1,615-mile flight, he needed the room.

But he didn’t get it.

“On the return leg, my father was downgraded to economy due to an equipment change,” says Singa. “The agent at the airport wouldn’t give my father a refund or any compensation for the downgrade, instead telling him to contact his travel agent.”

That would be Expedia.
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Are car rental companies downgrading their categories to rev up revenues?

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P.J. Zornosa is a longtime Alamo Rent a Car customer. He knows what to ask for when he’s renting a car, and knows what to expect. Or at least, he thought he did.

This week, Zornosa rented a midsize car from Alamo. But instead of being given the key to a Pontiac G6 “or similar” he was offered a Volkswagen Beetle. Could that be correct?

I inquired as to how could a Beetle be a “midsize.” I was defensively told that it and the Toyota Corolla were midsize cars. They said, “I don’t determine the classification of cars and their size.”

Zornosa is right. Even VW classifies its Beetle as a compact car.

Are car rental companies quietly changing their categories to make more money? An Alamo spokeswoman denies it.

Alamo has always classified the Volkswagen Beetle as a midsize car. No changes at all. However, car classes obviously are subject to change — as fleets change over time, criteria may be revised here and there. Also, while there are some similarities among car rental companies’ classifications, there are also differences.

If you’ve seen a car rental category downgrade in the recent past, .

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Walking down: 5 tips for avoiding the latest hotel scam

Jack Taras and his friends thought they would be checking in to the Occidental Grand hotel on the Dominican Republic’s postcard-perfect Eastern shore for Spring Break. But when Taras, a 19-year-old sophomore from Providence College, arrived at the resort, he was greeted with the hotel industry’s latest trick: he was walked down.

“They were sent to hotel that wasn’t as nice,” says his father, John Taras. He phoned his son’s online travel agency, Cheaptickets.com, and asked about the downgrade, which lasted the full five nights of Jack’s stay. It deferred to the hotel, which offered an apology and a vague explanation of a “computer mishap” that resulted in an overbooking.

“Walking” is a practice that’s as old as the hotel industry. When a resort is overbooked, it typically sends a guest to a comparable property, covering the cost of transportation, a phone call and accommodations. But somewhere along the way — probably at the start of the current recession — the word “comparable” was conveniently dropped, and hotels quietly began sending guests to lesser properties.

That’s not supposed to happen, according to Joseph McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, a trade group. “It’s most often the hotel’s policy that guests are provided accommodations in a facility of equal quality,” he told me. “The last thing that a property wants to happen is to compound the problem by sending the guest to an unacceptable facility.”

But problems are being compounded. That’s the bad news. There’s also some good news: Walking doesn’t happen as often as it did before the economy started going soft. The latest lodging industry forecasts predict more empty rooms in the months ahead, in an historic downturn that a recent PKF Hospitality Research study predicted would be “deeper and last longer” than previously thought. “With lower occupancy rates, I’m sure hotels are not having to walk as many guests,” says Robert Mandelbaum, PKF’s director of research information services.

The Occidental Grand offered Taras a voucher for a two-night stay, which he doesn’t want, and Cheaptickets.com has told him his case is being escalated to a supervisor. I contacted both the resort and the site on Taras’ behalf, but neither has responded.

It’s easy to understand why a hotel would want to walk a guest “down” when it’s overbooked. The property must cover the cost of your room when you’re “walked” and even though it often pays a discounted industry rate, it can save a few bucks by sending you to a lesser property and pocketing the difference.

Question is: what to do when it happens to you? Here are a few tips for guests who have been walked:

1. Refuse the room
Richard Carson wishes he’d done that when a four-star hotel in San Diego decided to downgrade him to a motel recently. “We arrived about 3 p.m. and were told we had no room, because 15 guests had decided to prolong their stay,” he says. “I’m sure that if I had been a no-show, they would have pocketed our deposits, even though there were no rooms available.”

He’s right. If Carson had politely stood his ground, pointing out his guaranteed reservation for a medical convention that had blocked hundreds of rooms at the same property, he probably would have been sent to a better hotel, if not offered a room at that one.

“The next time, I will simply start disrobing in the lobby, and wait for them to suddenly find a room,” he jokes. Now there’s an idea.

2. Know what’s happening behind the scenes
When someone tells you they’re out of rooms, it doesn’t necessarily mean the hotel is full. It just means there’s no room for you.

“It’s totally political,” says Kitty Cayo, who used to walk people for a hotel in the Midwest that she prefers not to name. “No frequent-stayer status? Walked. Not a corporate client? Good-bye. Booked through central reservations and an infrequent pleasure traveler? Hasta la vista.” She says at times there were rooms available, but they were being held for a VIP or two, “who managers hoped like hell were going to show up.”

Knowing that full doesn’t always mean “full” can be useful when you’re negotiating the terms of your walking papers. If a hotel employee admits that a few rooms are being held for late-arriving VIPs, you might talk your way into a better hotel.

3. Invoke your status
Speaking of which, if you’re a frequent guest, and you’re in danger of being walked down, this would be a good time to whip out your program membership card.

When Lyn Greenhill tried to check in at a Hilton Garden Inn recently, and was sent to “some other property I’ve never heard of,” he called the Hilton HHonors phone line. As a gold-level member of its frequent-stayer program, Greenhill had more clout than the average guest.

Like it or not, better customers are often singled out for preferred treatment, so having a card can protect you against a walk and a downgrade. But it’s no guarantee. A Hilton representative said the best it could do for Greenhill was to offer him a room at the Garden Inn the next day. So he phoned the nearby Marriott property, which had room.

4. Crack a joke
No, seriously.

That’s what Jonathan Yarmis did when a Marriott property in Los Angeles tried to walk him to a less desirable hotel. “What would you do if J.W. Marriott were in town?” he asked the clerk. “Well, I’m sure we’d find Mr. Marriott something,” the employee responded. “Well,” said Yarmis, “I have it on good authority that he’s not coming — and I’ll take his room.” The clerk laughed and asked him to wait a minute. “Sure enough, they found a room,” he recalls.

Moral of the story? There’s always a room or, at the very least, it’s someone else’s problem.

5. Be nice
It may make the difference between a downgrade and an upgrade.

When Anne Wiggins checked into a luxury hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica, a receptionist told there was no room at the inn. “I asked what the problem was and they said the education convention was still in progress and no rooms were available,” recalls Wiggins, a retired college administrator. She politely asked to speak with a manager, who declared, “No problema” and ordered an employee to walk her to a condo. “What a lovely place,” she remembers. “It had two bedrooms, each with its own bath, a kitchen, dining room and living room. There was a gorgeous view out each window. We stayed there for several days and were not charged extra.”

Being nice is your most effective weapon against an involuntary downgrade. Niceness often trumps status and hotel employees can — and frequently do — go out of their way for a friendly guest.

Ideally, when a hotel runs out of rooms, it should do everything it can to make you happy. Right down to the last detail.

Consider what the Sheraton Old San Juan did for Clyde Permenter when it couldn’t accommodate him. “They reserved a room at the DoubleTree, paid for it, paid for my taxi fares, for a complimentary buffet breakfast and returned my deposit,” he recalls. When he returned the next week after a cruise, he was upgraded to a suite. “What more could they have done?” he asks.

Until every hotel guest is “walked” like Permenter, these tips will ensure you get what you paid for.

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Downgraded without a refund

Question: I’m having a problem with an involuntary downgrade. I bought a ticket on Virgin Atlantic Airways last March to fly from New York to London in premium economy class. When I arrived at the airport, Virgin canceled my flight but rebooked me on the next flight out on British Airways.

When I was issued my new ticket, it was in economy class. I tried to explain I should’ve been booked in the same class — in this case, World Traveller Plus — but British Airways wanted to charge me extra for it.

I’ve complained to Virgin that I should’ve at least been issued a partial refund, but haven’t heard anything. Any insight you have would be greatly appreciated. — James Simon, New York

Answer: Virgin should have either put you in the British Airways equivalent of premium economy class or refunded the price difference between the tickets.

But that’s easier said than done. Even though Virgin’s premium economy and British Airways’ World Traveller are essentially the same products — they have roughly the same amenities and services, including in-flight entertainment, meals and seats with about the same amount of space — the airlines treat the products differently in their reservations system.

It turns out you were holding a discounted ticket for Virgin Atlantic’s premium cabin. When the time came to transfer your ticket to British Airways, the airline bought you a seat in the equivalent class for that fare — which was economy class.

That’s understandable from an airline’s perspective, but I think someone should have taken the time to explain why you were being downgraded. Virgin Atlantic could have also found a way of making this up to you, either by crediting miles to your frequent flier account or by offering you a flight voucher.

Instead, you were unceremoniously sent to the back of the plane. And when you asked for compensation, you were ignored.

How could you have prevented this? I think the ideal time to resolve a problem like this is at the ticket counter, not after you land. When you saw the involuntary downgrade, you should have protested the seat reassignment politely, but firmly. As far as I can tell, Virgin’s customer contract doesn’t specifically address a downgrade such as the one you encountered. However, the fine print seems to suggest that you should be sitting in the class of service for which you paid.

I contacted Virgin on your behalf, and a representative promised to offer you $250 in ticket vouchers or 25,000 miles. It also assured me your frequent flier account would be credited with the miles, as if you had flown on Virgin instead of British Airways.

Too bad the story doesn’t end there. A month later, you had received nothing. I contacted Virgin again. It didn’t respond. So you threatened to take the company to small claims court.

Finally, the airline sent you a belated apology, depositing the promised 25,000 miles into your account and crediting you with the miles for the flights. Better late than never.

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Virgin Atlantic breaks promise, hangs downgraded passenger out to dry

As a rule, Virgin Atlantic has an excellent reputation for customer service. But there are exceptions to every rule. James Simon is one of them.

The airline has broken a promise made to him — and me — to compensate him for an involuntary downgrade.

Here’s the note I received from Simon in early August.

I bought a ticket on Virgin Atlantic last March to fly from New York to London in premium economy. When I arrived at the airport, Virgin canceled my flight but rebooked me on the next flight out on British Airways.

When I was issued my new ticket, it was in economy class. I tried to explain I should’ve been booked in the same class, in this case World Traveller Plus, but BA wanted to charge me extra for it.

I’ve complained to Virgin that I should’ve been issued a partial refund at the very least and haven’t heard anything.

I contacted Virgin on Simon’s behalf. Here’s what it had to say.

We will contact Mr. Simon and offer him $250 in customer relations vouchers or 25,000 miles. We’ll also ask Flying Club to credit him with the miles he would have earned if he’d flown on the Virgin flight rather than BA.

That’s a reasonably good solution. I passed the message along to Simon, and he waited.

And waited. And waited.

A few weeks later, he wrote to me again.

I still have not received an official response from Virgin with the compensation they say they would offer in your last email. Did they say when I should expect this?

To which I replied:

I would give them a week or two, because of all the holidays. Please let me know if you don’t hear from anyone by mid-September. I apologize for the further delays.

It’s highly unusual for a travel company to promise compensation but to not deliver it. I really believed that Virgin had gotten sidetracked. I was wrong.

Two weeks later, Simon contacted me again.

I’m sorry to disappoint you, Chris, but despite my patience, no one from Virgin has responded with the settlement you described. Please inform them that if I have not received the credit vouchers and miles in my Virgin account before the end of this week, I will file a small claims case against them in court.

I sent another note to Virgin, asking about the refund (but not mentioning the potential suit, since that often doesn’t have the intended effect).

As of today, there’s been no answer from Virgin.

At the very least, the airline ought to tell Simon if it’s had a change of heart. Perhaps it will have a chance to do that — in court.

Update (9/23): At almost literally the 11th hour, just as suit was about to be filed, and 24 hours after this post, Simon received the following letter from Virgin:

Dear Mr Simon,

Thank you for contacting Virgin Atlantic Airways.  I’m sorry that there’s been a delay in responding to you.

I understand that you had purchased a ticket to fly in Premium Economy on our airline last March, but that this flight was cancelled. You were placed instead on a British Airways flight travelling in their economy cabin and you have requested the difference in fare from our refund department.

I have followed this up for you with them,  and they advise that the type of ticket you had purchased,  was a discounted Premium Economy ticket, that although providing you Premium Economy services with Virgin Atlantic, was equivalent only to an economy fare on British Airways.  Therefore there is no refund value to the ticket.

We only cancel one of our flights if there is no other alternative, and this is a decision that is never taken lightly.  We understand how disruptive it is to our passengers, as well as to ourselves, and I sincerely apologise for the inconvenience you were caused.

I certainly recognise your disappointment however, and as a gesture of goodwill I’ve taken the liberty of adding 25,000 miles to your Flying Club account, which I do hope you’ll accept with my compliments.  I’ve also contacted our Flying Club department to ask them to credit your account with the miles for the Virgin flight as if you had flown on Virgin that morning, and this has also been done.

In closing, I would once again like to offer my sincere apologies for the inconvenience and disappointment you have experienced, and also for the tardiness of our response to you.

With kind regards,

Liz Vallez
Customer Relations – US

I love a (relatively) happy ending. Thanks, Virgin!

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