What is the correct involuntary downgrade compensation on an award ticket?

Posted on June 23, 2015 by in Aeroplan, United Mileage Plus

Involuntary Denied Boarding

Reader Doug sends in his experience from a recent flight with United Airlines:

Not sure if this is the right path so reach out but I’m a long time reader. Thought I’d share this recent experience (yesterday) while flying out of Houston in an Aeroplan business first award ticket. 30 mins before flight departure I was told by the gate agents that I was being moved to economy because of an equipment change (787-8 to 787) which forced them to move 8 people to economy. When asked they told me they made their decision based in fare basis and gave passengers $1500 in credits to use. They also said they would refund the mileage (although I have not seen this yet). This is the first time this has happened to me and the experience seems to indicate that those who have invested a lot of money flying United and partner airlines are less important when trying to use those miles for business class travel. Seems like the compensation should have been equivalent to the cost of a one way business first ticket.

Doug’s experience is happening every day with every equipment change. Award tickets are often the first to be downgraded but it’s a lottery in the end and the flyers with no-elite status are often the ones to be downgraded first.

So let’s take a look of what rules apply in this case.

Involuntary Downgrade Compensation – EU rules

The European Union has regulated the cases of an involuntary downgrade.

If a passenger is placed in a lower class than that for which a ticket was purchased, the airline must refund 30/50/75% of the cost of the ticket for type of flights.

Unfortunately for Doug the EU rules does NOT apply since United Airlines is not a European airline.

Involuntary Downgrade Compensation – DOT rules

The DOT has a number of rules in place that cover cases when a passenger is not transported in time to the final destination booked.

However the DOT does NOT regulate any involuntary downgrade – the class of service is not a major concern when the DOT rules were drafted.

Involuntary Downgrade Compensation – What is the right amount?

Since no legal framework does (yet) apply for the case of an involuntary downgrade it is up to the airlines and passengers to find a fair solution.

The contract of carriage usually spells out that the airline can do whatever they want for ‘operational reasons’. There is not much we can use for our case there.

As a rule of thumb the airline should AT LEAST refund the portion of the ticket that was bought in excess of the class of service received. In Doug’s case this is the excess mileage he paid with Aeroplan for Business Class travel from Economy class travel.

Now with mileage tickets it can be problematic to get United to deal with Aeroplan. Doug should insist on United making it right – before contacting Aeroplan. Should United not initiate any refund Aeroplan should become part of the negotiation.

United Airlines also offered an additional $1,500 travel voucher which is rather generous. Of course cash would be better but $1,500 goes a long way when traveling on a deal fare.

I recently settled my case of involuntary denied boarding with South African Airways. South African took a long time to respond to me – but when they did they made it right – finally!