Forced to downgrade because we paid with miles

A nonstop flight from Newark to New Delhi can be grueling, so when Eva and Yoel Haller took the 16-hour trip in February, they made sure they cashed in their award miles for confirmed seats in business class.

It seemed like the right thing: Eva Haller, who was recovering from cancer, was going to India on behalf of two non-profit organizations. She and her husband are 82, and they figured they could use a little extra legroom.

But United Airlines didn’t see it that way.

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She explains,

We were among the first to board the plane. After settling down, being served orange juice, and even having put on our travel socks, our name was called, and we were informed that we had to vacate our seats because the airline needed four seats for their crew members, who must have a place to rest after eight hours in flight.

So they downgraded us from business class to economy, saying that we had to sit in the last row of economy by the bathrooms.

From first to worst. Wow. (Please see bottom of this story for an update.)

But why the Hallers? Why not select two younger passengers to squeeze into the cheap seats?

When we asked why we were the ones being moved, and not some others, who were much younger, we were told it is because we used miles to book our flight. We paid full fare on the rest of the business class flights we took through out Southeast Asia and Europe. It was not a question of money.

The Hallers asked for an explanation for their downgrade, and were told the crewmembers needed to be in business class because the air conditioning where the crew normally sits wasn’t working. They also learned the air conditioning unit had been broken for a week on that aircraft.

Why didn’t United proactively cancel their business class tickets and rebook them on a different flight? No one could tell them.

“We felt like captives, forced to do whatever the airline staff told us to do,” says Eva Haller. “We arrived to Delhi exhausted and in pain.”

A United Airlines representative assured the couple they would be receiving $1,500 each in vouchers and a partial mileage credit, a resolution the Hallers call “unacceptable.”

They’ve asked me to help.

I feel terrible for them, and I’m a little surprised their airline would downgrade them because they used miles to buy their business class seats. Aren’t miles a product of your loyalty to an airline? And shouldn’t people who redeem award miles be the last to be sent to steerage?

I’ve encountered this before. Back in 2009, US Airways bumped a couple who had paid for their upgrade with miles, but refused to compensate them. The passengers took US Airways to small claims court and settled.

I wanted to give United Airlines an opportunity to tell its side of the story, so I contacted the airline on March 16, forwarding the Hallers’ complaint and asking for a comment.

It hasn’t responded.

There’s no excuse for what happened to these passengers. If United Airlines knew about the broken air conditioning, and knew that it would have to downgrade two unlucky business class passengers, but failed to do something, then its actions — or lack of actions — are beyond the pale.

But what’s done can’t be undone. The Hallers’ flight is over. A $1,500 voucher and a partial mileage refund is far more than the folks in the US Airways case were offered before they sued the airline. I’m not sure if I can do better.

Given that United isn’t being talkative about this apparent service failure, I don’t know if I can help. But should I try?

Update (2 p.m.): United Airlines contacted me and said it had reached out to the Hallers last month after I contacted the airline on their behalf. “We apologized for the convenience and sent each customer a $2,000 electronic gift certificate and fully reimbursed their miles,” a spokesman said.

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