Travel Troubleshooter: Overbooked seats

Published: Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014 - 12:00 am

I recently flew with my son from Sao Paolo to New York on TAM. We had purchased “comfort seats” for this flight ($75 each) and were assigned seats 27C and 27A. When we boarded the flight, we found that these seats had been double-booked, and other passengers with valid tickets were already in those seats.

There were no other comfort seats available, although both business and first class were mostly empty.

Following a long discussion with a flight attendant, we were informed that we were to accept “regular” coach seats far back in the plane, and that we would receive a refund.

We were dismayed to hear this. One of the reasons I purchased the comfort seats was that we are both quite tall, and I suffer from persistent back issues. Normal coach seating on TAM is so tight that it often leads to back problems for me, which happened on this flight.

The seats we received were uncomfortable. My seat back didn’t work, and it was very cramped.

I was told it would take between two and three days for a refund to appear in my bank account. But it’s been more than five months. I’ve been back and forth with TAM numerous times, have called and written to their executives, but there’s still no refund. I find this entire process discourteous and unprofessional on TAM’s part. Can you help?

– Nathan Pearson, Rye, NY

The seats you were trying to avoid are truly uncomfortable by almost any standard. The pitch, or distance between seats, is about 31 inches, which means you’re wedged into a tiny enclosure for 10 hours. That shouldn’t be legal.

When TAM double-booked your “comfort” seat – which has about the same amount as the average economy class seat in the ’70s – they should have offered you a courtesy upgrade into a vacant business-class seat. If they couldn’t, then the least they should have done was to quickly refund the upgrade fee you paid. TAM didn’t do that, either.

Refunds on upgrade fees ought to be automatic, but as it turns out, they aren’t. When you didn’t get your premium economy-class seats, a crew member needed to fill out paperwork authorizing a refund. That also didn’t happen.

Airline passengers don’t deserve this. Every seat should have a minimum amount of legroom and width, no matter what they pay for it. Airlines shouldn’t be allowed to remove much-needed room and then demand more money just to treat you with a little dignity.

I find it absurd that TAM would string you along for five more months, promising you something it probably never intended to deliver. I mean, until I contacted it, TAM’s unarticulated position was that because you didn’t have the refund paperwork, it would get to keep your $150. Come on.

I asked TAM to look into your claims and a representative told me it experienced “difficulty” in obtaining the data from all pertinent departments because your paperwork wasn’t filled out correctly after you were denied a “comfort” seat. TAM refunded your $150.


Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org, or email him at chris@elliott.org.

Read more articles by Christopher Elliott



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