Are you entitled to compensation for an aircraft equipment swap?

Feb 27, 2020

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Serious award travellers don’t just focus on the route and airline they’re flying with; they go out of their way to book themselves on a specific type of plane whenever possible. Sometimes airlines will change equipment at the last minute. Usually, you’ll stay in the same cabin you booked originally, but you might end up with a wildly different seat, as TPG editor Nick Ellis found out a few years back when Korean Air swapped the plane flying his route. Instead of getting to enjoy a private first-class suite in the nose of the 747-8, he ended up on a much more standard first-class seat on the carrier’s 777-300ER. TPG reader GR wants to know if he’s entitled to any form of compensation if this happens …

I’m flying Korean Air ICN-AKL next month with my dad. We were flying business class on their 747-8i (where all seats have aisle access) and last night received a notification that our seat selections were canceled and the plane changed to a non-refurbished 777-300ER. We lost our aisle access with a 2-3-2 configuration, so is it worth it to ask for points or compensation for this change?

TPG READER GR

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This is an incredibly deflating email to receive, but unfortunately, there’s not much GR can do here. This is the same “equipment swap” (though most of us would consider this a downgrade), that Nick experienced a few years back. If you’re flying in first class you may not mind as much once you get onboard and enjoy that first sip of champagne, but the difference is much more noticeable in business class.

Korean Air’s 747-8s feature the carrier’s best business-class product: Apex Suites in a 2-2-2 configuration (or just 2-2 on the upper deck). The window seats in this configuration offer the most privacy of any non-suite business-class product, thanks to the privacy divider and small walkway used to access the seat. This means that even in a 2-2-2 configuration, every seat still offers direct aisle access.

(Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy.)

Meanwhile, as GR mentioned, the older 777s feature a 2-3-2 layout in business class, with outdated forward-facing seats, and no direct aisle access for passengers in the window or middle seats.

When GR purchased his ticket, whether he used miles or paid cash, he entered into an agreement with Korean Air to transport him from his origin to his destination in business class. That contract of carriage is not conditional on the specific plane used to operate his flights, meaning as disappointing as this situation is, Korean doesn’t owe him any compensation for an equipment swap. If they’d swapped in the opposite direction, upgrading him from an older 777 to a 747-8, should they ask him to pay more to cover the difference in the quality of products?

While that question seems unfair, there are plenty of times that an equipment swap can work out in your favour. If you booked a business-class flight from Newark (EWR) to Europe on United for any time this summer, you might find yourself upgraded from an older 767 to one that’s been retrofit with the carrier’s new Polaris business class. The same thing goes for many ANA business- and first-class passengers (especially those flying to New York or London) who’ve received surprised “upgrades” to the airlines latest business- and first-class products, termed “The Room” and “The Suite” respectively.

The only thing you might be able to ask for in GR’s position, and this is not a guarantee but something that’s up to the generosity of the airline, is a routing change. Let’s say you’re scheduled to fly British Airways from Chicago (ORD) to London (LHR), originally booked on a 747. BA operates two daily flights between O’Hare and London, currently using a 777 for one and a 747 for the other. In the event of an equipment swap, you might be able to convince the airline to let you switch to the other flight or to move your flight up or back a day to help you fly on a specific plane, but again this is not a guarantee and a much bigger ask if you booked an award ticket vs. a cash ticket.

Bottom line

You might not notice an equipment swap if you’re flying in economy, but the closer you get to the front of the plane the bigger an impact it can have. Some airlines are especially notorious for equipment swaps on short- and medium-haul flights (including Korean Air, Cathay Pacific and Thai Airways, just to name a few), but these operational changes do not entitle you to compensation. The only way you’d be eligible to receive compensation is if you were downgraded from business to economy because your flight was swapped to a plane with a smaller business-class cabin.

Thanks for the question, GR, and if you’re a TPG reader who’d like us to answer a question of your own, tweet us at @thepointsguyuk, message us on Facebook or email us at info@thepointsguy.com.

Featured photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy.

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