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Compensation for an aircraft swap?


When Daniel Materna and his wife booked a recent trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, they carefully selected their flights. The couple was keen to fly on a United Airlines 787 Dreamliner, specifically, to enjoy the lie-flat Polaris seats in the business-class cabin.

However, a few days before their vacation began, United Airlines notified Materna about an aircraft swap. Instead of a Dreamliner, the couple would be flying to California on a Boeing 737 Max with recliners in first class. On their return flight, the Dreamliner would be replaced with a Boeing 757.

Materna considered the aircraft change to be a considerable downgrade and expected United Airlines to provide a refund. The airline quickly rejected that notion — multiple times in response to Materna’s multiple requests.

Getting nowhere with United Airlines, Materna brought his complaint to TPG. His hope was that we could convince United Airlines that, since he paid for two of the airline’s flagship Polaris lie-flat seats that he didn’t end up flying in, he should receive compensation as a result.

But is a passenger owed anything if their airline changes the aircraft? That’s the question for the day.

Booking tickets on a United Airlines Dreamliner

UNITED/FACEBOOK

Last summer, Materna and his wife decided to take a short getaway to California. Scrolling through the United Airlines website, they were surprised to see the option to book seats on one of the airline’s Dreamliners for the four-hour flight from O’Hare International Airport (ORD) to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

“We specifically selected that flight so we could fly on the Dreamliner with the lie-flat beds,” Materna told me.

United’s Dreamliners feature the airline’s Polaris international business-class seats, which are laid out in a 1-2-1 configuration. So the couple picked their seats in the middle section of the cabin and completed their reservation.

“We were really looking forward to the first-class Dreamliner experience,” Materna explained.

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It would be a truly luxurious way to start their trip to California.

United Airlines: There’s been a change of aircraft

A few days before Materna’s flight to Los Angeles, however, he received a notification.

“Due to an equipment change, the flight from ORD to LAX was changed to a 737 MAX,” Materna recalled. “We were then assigned two regular seats in first class — not the premium seats (lie-flat) we originally paid for.”

Although the news disappointed the couple, they assumed United Airlines would compensate them for what they considered to be a “downgrade.” They flew to California and were enjoying their vacation when the airline sent them additional news.

“Now United Airlines notified us that our return flight was also downgraded,” Materna explained. “We wouldn’t be flying back on a Dreamliner either, but a 757 — also without lie-flat seats.”

The disgruntled couple flew home on that 757 and then Materna focused on getting the compensation he believed United Airlines owed to them.

United Airlines: ‘You got what you paid for’

Materna was surprised that United Airlines hadn’t automatically provided compensation for the change of aircraft. After all, that swap had caused the couple to miss out on flying on the lie-flat seats they expected to enjoy.

But when he called and emailed United Airlines to ask about the value of his refund for the downgrade he perceived he had experienced, his surprise turned to frustration.

“United Airlines told me I got what I paid for — a nonrefundable first-class flight from Chicago to Los Angeles. I argued that I paid for a first-class seat on a Dreamliner — a premium experience.”

After several email rounds in which Materna was unable to convince United Airlines that the change in aircraft had resulted in a downgrade, he gave up.

That’s when he sent his request for help to TPG.

Paying for first-class lie-flat seats but receiving recliner seats

UNITED/FACEBOOK

“I’m having a continuing argument with the Customer Care folks at United Airlines, and I need your expert advice,” Materna wrote me.

“United’s Customer Care folks refuse to reimburse me for the difference. Lie-flat First-Class seats on a 787 cost significantly more than regular recliner First-Class seats on a 737. If we wanted to travel on a 737 or a 757, we would have booked that. Can you help?”

Unfortunately, as soon as I reviewed Materna’s complaint, I knew there was little chance of United Airlines providing a cash refund for his experience.

There is no question that flying in a lie-flat seat on a United Airlines 787 Dreamliner is very different from a flight in a recliner seat on a 737. But the reality is, if your airline changes the equipment but your cabin class remains the same, according to your ticket contract, you haven’t been downgraded.

Rule 24 of UA’s contract of carriage makes it clear that the airline can swap out its equipment without liability to passengers. United Airlines sells transportation from Point A to Point B in the cabin class purchased. It doesn’t guarantee a specific aircraft or seat type.

And this aircraft change policy isn’t unique to United Airlines. A peek into pretty much any airline’s contract of carriage will reveal the same language.

The U.S. Department of Transportation only requires airlines to provide compensation in the case of an aircraft swap if that change forces the passenger into a different cabin.

Will United Airlines provide any compensation?

CALLAGHAN O’HARE/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES

The Maternas were understandably disappointed to fly in the less-luxurious premium cabins of the smaller aircraft. However, they were still seated in a first-class section both ways. According to the DOT and the United Airlines Contract of Carriage, they weren’t downgraded and, both technically and legally, the airline owed them nothing for the change of aircraft.

And although Materna was under the impression he had paid more for their tickets to fly in the Dreamliner aircraft, that wasn’t the case. All United flights between Chicago and Los Angeles are similarly priced and fluctuate daily based on a number of factors, but primarily on supply and demand, not on the type of jet operating a specific flight.

I broke the news to Materna that no amount of debating with United Airlines would lead to a refund for the change of aircraft. He and his wife may have asked United Airlines to swap him onto another Polaris-equipped airline prior to the trip, but asking for compensation after the trip was complete isn’t something that airlines typically consider. It’s also important to note that an airline may not entertain your request to change to a new flight simply because the aircraft changes, but you can certainly ask.

Although United Airlines didn’t technically owe the couple anything, as a consumer advocate who has mediated thousands of airline cases over the years, I know carriers often provide token goodwill gestures under these circumstances if you ask nicely. And that is exactly what United Airlines did for the Maternas.

In the end, United Airlines gave the couple a small future travel credit. However, that voucher came with a reminder that it was simply a goodwill gesture and not compensation for their experience.

This is a very positive outcome for the couple, who have learned a lesson about setting their sights on a specific aircraft and seat.

“United did provide both my wife and I with a $75.00 travel certificate toward future travel. A small token of goodwill, indeed. Thanks again! Daniel Materna”

Bottom line

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

Travelers should keep in mind that airlines can and do change the planes operating on specific flights from time to time. The aircraft listed on your original reservation may not be the one you ultimately board and there are no rules or regulations that require an airline to compensate passengers for aircraft changes.

So, if you book a ticket based on a desire to experience a specific aircraft, be prepared for that to change, and certainly don’t base your entire trip around it.

When booking a flight, keep a few things in mind based on airlines’ contracts of carriage to temper your expectations:

  • You’re purchasing transportation from Point A to Point B in a specific cabin.
  • You’re not buying a specific seat on a specific aircraft.
  • Arrival and departure times are also never guaranteed. However, if your flight’s schedule significantly changes you may be able to cancel and receive a refund. Check your carrier’s contract of carriage for details.
  • Aircraft changes will not typically lead to compensation unless the equipment swap leads to you being moved to a lower class of service. For instance, if the new plane has fewer first-class seats and some passengers are placed in economy instead, they might receive compensation.
  • Seat changes rarely result in any compensation unless you are moved out of your class of service. However, if your seat is broken inside your assigned class of service, and doesn’t function in the way it was meant to, you should be eligible for some type of compensation. Make sure to document the problem while onboard with the crew and take photos and videos that illustrate the problem.

Finally, if you believe that a change of aircraft has effectively forced you into a downgrade and the carrier will not provide compensation, you can submit a complaint to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The airline will be required to officially respond to you via the DOT. Filing a complaint with the DOT often provides the nudge an airline needs to correct a valid problem.

And don’t forget, you’ve got one more avenue to pursue if you’ve got a problem with an airline, cruise line, car rental agency, vacation rental company or credit card issuer. You can send your request for help to ombudsman@thepointsguy.com and I’ll be happy to investigate your case, too.



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