Last fall, TPG reader Michael Bona and his new wife boarded an Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Auckland Airport (AKL) in New Zealand. They were thrilled to have been able to redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points to start their honeymoon on a high note in business class.
Settling into their seats, the couple looked forward to a celebratory cocktail and a tasty meal. Afterward, they would convert those Air New Zealand business-class seats into lie-flat beds for the rest of the 13-hour flight.
However, soon after takeoff, Bona got an unpleasant surprise: His business-class seat was not functioning properly.
So, as Bona's bride and all the other business-class passengers enjoyed their beds, he was locked in an uncomfortable upright position.
Bona, who suffers from herniated disks, says sitting in that broken business-class seat for the 6,500-mile trip aggravated his condition, and his honeymoon was negatively affected. As a result, he's asking Air New Zealand to fully refund his flight to Auckland. He would also like a partial refund for his return trip because of an extended delay.
But is that reasonable? Bona wasn't sure because Air New Zealand ignored his 16 refund requests for the flight in the broken seat. Now he's asking TPG if we can convince the airline to refund him for this honeymoon disaster.
Planning a honeymoon to New Zealand
Nearly a year in advance, Bona and his fiancee began planning their honeymoon in New Zealand. By the time they boarded their flight to Auckland on Oct. 31, 2022, they had booked all sorts of adventures there. The business-class seats to New Zealand were a worthwhile splurge for the honeymooners.
Rather than trying to find a rare Air New Zealand business-class award ticket, Bona booked his round-trip itinerary through Chase's travel portal so that he could redeem his Chase Ultimate Rewards points and offset some of the cost.
His total (just for his ticket) came to $7,037, and he redeemed 319,651 points to shave $4,794 off his total since he carries the Chase Sapphire Reserve and his points are worth 1.5 cents apiece redeemed this way. He paid the remaining $2,243 with his credit card.
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As the couple took their seats aboard Air New Zealand Flight 5 and prepared for the long trip, it seemed everything had come together perfectly.
But within minutes of takeoff, it became clear that there was something wrong with Bona's seat.
Flying the whole way to New Zealand in a broken business-class seat
Pressing the button on his seat to recline it just a little resulted in no movement. He pushed it again with the same outcome. When his wife's seat easily responded, Bona called for the flight crew to have a look.
“Despite the best efforts of the Air New Zealand flight crew, my seat remained frozen. They said it was an electrical problem, but even after resetting the system, my seat couldn't connect,” Bona told me.
“So I was stuck in a crunched upright position for the 13-hour flight. I had specifically purchased business class because I have herniated disks and needed to lay flat on the plane.”
When the uncomfortable flight finally came to an end, Bona says he was in excruciating pain. For the next 14 days traveling through New Zealand, the couple tried to participate in all their previously planned adventures.
“Because of my terrible back problems, we had to cancel some of our excursions,” Bona recalled. “I was in too much pain.”
Asking Air New Zealand (again and again) for a full refund
Arriving back in the United States two weeks later, Bona set out on a mission. In a lengthy complaint letter to Air New Zealand that he shared with me, he detailed why he believed the airline owed him a full refund for the trip to Auckland — and a partial refund for their return flight.
Here's an excerpt:
Because I was assigned a broken business-class seat, what should have been a wonderful honeymoon flying with Air New Zealand not only was unnecessarily stressful and caused a huge headache but also resulted in my significant back pain for my entire honeymoon. The return flight was delayed and caused my wife and I to miss our connection in Los Angeles. Our luggage was also delayed, so I believe we are owed a partial refund on the return flight as well.
A few days after sending his refund request with no response from Air New Zealand, Bona sent a follow-up.
And then, methodically, every four days for two months, he sent the same request to the same customer service email address. Over and over.
Finally, concluding that Air New Zealand had no intention of giving him a refund — or even a response — Bona got another idea: Maybe TPG could help.
Does Air New Zealand owe this passenger a full refund?
By the time Bona's email hit my inbox, he had been trying for months to pry a refund from Air New Zealand. In the paper trail he sent me, I counted 16 emails to the airline since returning from his honeymoon.
Bona was certainly determined, but I noticed a few problems with his approach. First, his letter to Air New Zealand was quite long and contained lots of extraneous information that just gave additional bulk to the message.
This type of lengthy and complicated correspondence is often “overlooked” by customer service agents in favor of concise, more easily digestible complaints.
The second problem that I assumed was causing Bona to have zero success with his mission was his proposed resolution. Put simply: It was unreasonable.
Of course, it was a disappointing experience to sit in a broken business-class seat to begin his honeymoon, but Air New Zealand had delivered him to Auckland. Expecting a complete refund for the flight because of the problematic seat was not reasonable.
As I explained to another TPG reader assigned a nonfunctioning seat, your contract with the carrier is to get you from point A to point B. If your business-class seat is not working properly, the airline should refund part of the flight cost — but not all of it because you did receive transportation to your destination.
In Bona's case, the additional request for a partial refund for the delayed flight home just muddied the waters further. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, no current rules or regulations would compel Air New Zealand to provide compensation for a delayed flight or bags.
After reviewing all of Bona's paper trail, I explained to him why the airline didn't owe him a full refund for the flight to Auckland. Nor was he owed anything for the flight delay on the return.
But Air New Zealand did owe him a partial refund for his flight experience in the broken business-class seat.
Asking Air New Zealand to respond to this passenger's complaint
Now that Bona's expectations were leveled with reality, I was sure Air New Zealand would want to address his complaint and come to a positive resolution.
I sent a short, to-the-point request to the executive team at Air New Zealand. These are contacts I can reach out to as a consumer advocate and media member, not customer-facing representatives. My proposed resolution was a partial refund for the flight to New Zealand.
Nearly immediately, Bona received his long-awaited response from Air New Zealand. Essentially, the airline issued a refund for the price difference between premium economy and business class for the one-way leg of his journey in which he sat in the broken seat: "This is to advise [we have processed] a refund for a downgrade from Business Premium to Premium Economy equivalent, due to a broken seat LAX to Auckland flight. The refund amount is US$1,568.00."
As expected, no compensation was offered for the flight delay on the way back home.
In addition, Chase deposited 20,000 points (worth $400 by TPG's valuations) into Bona's Ultimate Rewards account.
It seemed that, finally, Bona's honeymoon saga had come to an end.
That is, until three weeks later when I heard from a frustrated Bona once more.
Air New Zealand sent the refund to Chase Travel ... then what?
When a traveler is issued a refund from a cruise line or airline, the cash goes back to the original form of payment. In Bona's case, he had booked and paid for his honeymoon through Chase's travel portal. As a result, when Air New Zealand processed the $1,568 refund, it landed in the accounting department of Chase Travel.
Now Bona faced a new set of challenges. The refund had been delivered to Chase without specific instructions. Chase Travel customer service agents could not process the refund to Bona’s Chase Sapphire Reserve because of the limited information attached to the payment.
Similar to his previous problem-solving style, over the course of three weeks, Bona had persistently sent email after email asking for his refund, this time to Chase Travel:
Hi, Michelle! Now Air New Zealand sent my refund to Chase Travel [three weeks ago]. I have since spoken to three supervisors at Chase Travel in the past two weeks; the first two supervisors told me they would have this resolved and call me back within two days – neither of them did. Now it seems my refund is in limbo.
I have sent the documents that show that Air New Zealand sent me $1,568 – the credit has been posted and confirmed. I've now sent seven emails, and not a soul at Chase Travel has reached back out or confirmed receipt.
Once again, Bona was caught in a cycle of endless emails with no positive end in sight.
Finally: A happy ending to this case
It was time to close Bona's case once and for all. I reached out to our always-helpful executive contact at Chase. (This is also not a customer-facing person but a representative that media members can reach out to on cases like this.)
When Air New Zealand processed the refund back to Chase, it didn't come with a lot of instructions. Customer service representatives were unaware that the refund was meant for Bona, so they could not apply it to his account.
I supplied a reference code from Air New Zealand to Chase, and that did the trick. Bona finally received his refund: “Hi Michelle, I'm not sure what fire you lit under Chase, but it seems to have finally worked; THANK YOU. Seriously appreciate everything you've done to help me out on this.”
You're welcome, Mike. TPG is happy to have been able to help sort out this complicated problem for you.
What to do if you discover your airline seat is broken
If you travel enough, you will likely, at some point, be assigned a disappointing airline seat — maybe even in business class.
Here's what you should do if you find yourself sitting in a broken seat on your next flight.
Check that your seat works as soon as you board the aircraft
Passengers should always check that their seat is functioning as soon as they board the aircraft. Once you're airborne, there will be limited ways to troubleshoot a broken seat. If resetting the system doesn't work, you'll likely be out of luck.
On the ground, there are more options that the crew can employ to fix a seat that isn't working correctly. Prior to takeoff, you can also consider switching flights — an option that won't be available if you discover your seat is broken in midair. So pressing those buttons and trying things out before the point of no return is essential.
Document your experience
A significant number of consumers who ask me for help have no documentation of the experience they're complaining about. That's unfortunate because it's tough for a company to ignore a complaint when there is visual evidence of the problem.
If you're assigned to a broken seat, don't be shy about taking photos and, more importantly, videos demonstrating the issue. When you make your formal complaint, you'll be able to show the airline what exactly the issue was. This visual will have a much more substantial impact than your words.
Also, jot down the name of any crew member who helped try to fix the problem for you. They may be able to corroborate your experience, thus strengthening your case.
File a formal complaint
It's best to begin the formal complaint process while on the aircraft or upon landing. Ask the crew members how to create an incident report about your broken seat. In Bona’s case, the Air New Zealand flight crew gave him a small card with an incident number on it. You should receive something similar if an airline creates an incident report for your problem. That card will give you specific instructions as to how to proceed and whom to contact with your claim.
Follow up and escalate your complaint
In Bona's case, he sent 16 requests for a refund to Air New Zealand before he reached out to TPG for help. If you've sent one or two follow-ups to the same customer service email address and received no response, it's time to reevaluate and escalate your complaint elsewhere.
If your complaint is flatlining with the company, something is wrong and there are a few things to check before you send it again.
- Is your message unreasonable? I frequently see consumers with valid complaints asking for far too much as a resolution. These types of requests often go unanswered. Ask an unbiased friend to review your email to determine how others might perceive your message. Make sure what you're asking for seems reasonable to people who are detached from the situation.
- Is your message too long or too complicated? Keep in mind that whoever receives your email is often going through hundreds of complaints each week. To make your message stand out in a positive way, keep it concise, cordial and easy to understand. End your letter with that reasonable resolution proposal.
- Don't exaggerate. A quick way for your message to lose credibility is by exaggerating the problem. When writing a complaint letter, stick to the facts and don't make things worse than they are.
- Do you need a better customer service contact? If you've checked all of the above and your complaint letter seems to pass muster, your issue may be the contact address. You might be sending your message to an unmonitored inbox — a customer service black hole. If that's the problem, my advocacy organization, Consumer Rescue, can help. We provide a free customer service and executive contact finder for consumers to ensure their complaint lands on the right person's desk. Tell us what company you're dealing with, and we'll tell you who to contact there.
File a complaint with the Department of Transportation
If the airline continues to ignore your emails despite your best efforts, you can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation. The airline must respond to you through the DOT within 60 days of filing.
If you've got a valid complaint, a letter from the DOT will often be all that is necessary for the airline to do the right thing.
Being stuck in a broken business-class seat for 13 hours when you expected to be lounging in a bed is no doubt a huge disappointment. But the airline's contract of carriage doesn't make clear exactly what a passenger is owed in this circumstance.
That means if you find yourself in a similar situation, it's up to you to document the problem, make a reasonable resolution request and find the right person at the airline to make your pitch.
It's unfortunate that Air New Zealand only responded to this complaint after TPG got involved. But we're happy to have been able to help mediate a fair and reasonable outcome for Bona.
If you have a problem you can't resolve involving an airline, cruise line, hotel, or vacation rental or car rental company, send the details to email@example.com, and I'll be happy to help you too.
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.