Q: Last year I booked an Air New Zealand Skycouch for a flight from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand. I’d recently had knee surgery and needed the extra room. I paid $2,170 for the ticket.
When I boarded the flight, I found out that Air New Zealand had sold two of the three adjacent seats to other passengers, and I was denied their use. The flight manager said I “hadn’t paid enough” for the Skycouch option, and refused to move me to business class.
I identified myself as disabled because of my recent knee surgery. I had had stitches removed two days before flying and had promised my surgeon I could keep the leg elevated on the long flight.
Because I was unable to do so, my knee swelled up so badly that my mobility was restricted and I couldn’t enjoy my time in Auckland.
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I originally asked Air New Zealand for my entire fare to be refunded. They declined and refunded $1,199, the difference between the normal coach fare and the Skycouch fare.
I have filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation. Do I have any other recourse to get additional compensation? For the truly traumatic and insulting way I was treated, my hope was that the airline would have done just a little bit extra.
Susan Crookall, Fort Collins, Colo.
A: It takes more than 12 hours to fly from San Francisco to Auckland. The seat pitch – a rough measure of legroom – is somewhere between 31 and 33 inches in economy class, which makes this marathon flight an ordeal for anyone.
The Skycouch is actually a great idea. It offers three economy-class seats in a row that, together, create a flexible space – an area to relax and stretch out in, or for the kids to use as a play area. “It’s like having your very own couch on the plane,” Air New Zealand says.
If you booked a Skycouch, you should have had one. Instead, a crew member told you, in front of the other passengers, that the $2,170 you paid wasn’t “enough” and that you had to suffer through the flight in a regular economy-class seat, despite your disability.
Technically, all the airline had to do was refund you the extra money you paid. But let’s not get hung up on technicalities. There’s still the issue of the painful crossing and how it affected your stay in New Zealand. Surely, Air New Zealand owes you at least an apology for the denied seating.
As a side note, none of this ought to be necessary. Every seat on a transpacific crossing should have a minimum level of comfort. Airlines keep moving the seats closer together to make more money, and although Air New Zealand is by no means the worst offender, it can do better.
I contacted Air New Zealand on your behalf. A representative contacted you and explained that a schedule change in your flight time resulted in your Skycouch reservation being “disassociated” from your reservation. In other words, Air New Zealand thought you’d paid for a single seat. The airline is working on a fix. A representative apologized to you, credited you with 5,000 frequent-flier miles and refunded your airfare – a generous resolution.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.