Travel

She paid to reserve an airline seat, but it didn’t recline

Q. I recently flew from Cape Town to London on British Airways in economy class. It’s a 12-hour flight. In order to reserve a seat prior to 24 hours before the flight, I paid the required 40 pound fee.

The seat was broken — it failed to recline at all. The plane was full, so I couldn’t move to a different seat. The chief purser offered me a 30 pound refund. It was the most she could offer, and so I accepted.

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She explained that I would receive an e-mail regarding payment. I did not receive an e-mail, so I contacted British Airways online. The airline’s response was that the cabin manager had no authority to offer compensation. British Airways was not prepared to refund the 40 pounds, and as a good-will gesture awarded 5,000 Avios points.

I replied, stating that I did not want points. I merely wanted my 40 pounds that I paid for a seat that in fact was broken. The airline said that “to be fair” to all passengers, it could not make an exception. My question is: What can I do?

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VIVIENNE PEARSON, Bearsted, United Kingdom

A. British Airways should have honored its offer and raised it by 10 pounds. After all, you paid extra for a seat that should have worked. That’s what I’d call a fair resolution.

But that’s not how an airline like British Airways sees it. In its view, you paid for a seat reservation — a reservation it honored. It doesn’t accept that there’s an implicit agreement that the seat works.

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By the way, please don’t get me started on reclining seats in economy class. That’s a fist fight waiting to happen, since the seats are wedged so close together. Leaning back triggers a domino effect of more leaning, an act that deprives other passengers of legroom and leaves the guy in the last room with practically zero personal space.

But on a 12-hour flight, it’s easy to understand why someone would expect to be able to get a little bit of recline, and why you would be so disappointed with British Airways’ response. While offering a refund on your reservation fee may be against company policy, a representative nevertheless offered you 30 pounds. The airline should have kept its word.

A brief, polite e-mail to the British Airways executives might have done the trick for you. I list their names, numbers, and e-mail addresses on my consumer-advocacy site:
elliott.org/company-contacts/british-airways/.

I contacted the airline on your behalf. As an “exception,” it agreed to refund the full 40 pounds.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler.” You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org.
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