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How to Handle Last-Minute Aircraft Equipment Swaps

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Even the best laid travel plans can be undone by an aircraft equipment change. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen explains how to avoid these unexpected swaps, and what to do when it happens to your flight.

If you follow TPG on Instagram, you may recall the last-minute equipment swap he encountered flying back from Paris earlier this month. Unfortunately, he wound up in American’s old 767 business class with its angled lie-flat seat. That’s still better than flying coach across the pond, but not a fun surprise at the gate!

TPG's old-school ride from Paris earlier this month.
TPG’s old-school ride from Paris earlier this month.

I wrote about how to handle aircraft changes at the beginning of the year, but I only addressed these last-minute changes briefly. Today I want to dive deeper into the subject by looking at which carriers have variances across their long-haul fleets, and offering additional suggestions for how to identify (and deal with) last-minute swaps for sub-optimal aircraft.

As I wrote about in the earlier post, these last-minute changes can pop up for a variety of reasons:

  1. Cancellations or delays due to weather (or events like the Eyjafjallajokull eruption back in 2010)
  2. Unforeseen maintenance issues
  3. Low demand

No airline wants to fly customers on a plane with an inferior product, but sometimes the decision must be made!

Delta has updated most of its international 757s, but you may still find an old recliner at the last minute!
Delta has updated most of its international 757s, but you might still find an old recliner at the last minute.

While more and more carriers are working to standardize long-haul offerings across their fleets, there’s still a significant degree of unpredictability. TPG wrote a detailed post on the major U.S. carriers last April, but here’s a quick round-up of where things stand today:

  • American — The brand new 777-300ER and 787 aircraft include up-to-date amenities like fully flat seats and WiFi. Unfortunately, the 777-200 and 767-300 aircraft are in the process of being retrofitted, with many still sporting the old angled lie-flat, so you may find yourself in TPG’s shoes if a last-minute swap happens!
  • Delta — Delta is slightly ahead of American with respect to cabin updates, as virtually all of its long-haul fleet (including all A330, 747, 767, and 777 aircraft) give you fully flat seats with direct aisle access in business. The one exception is the internationally configured 757 planes, as some include the new fully flat seats, while others still have the old recliners.
  • United — United was actually the first U.S. carrier to offer fully flat bed seats on all long-haul international flights as of June 2013. As a result, you’re guaranteed to at least have a consistent United seat experience when you travel internationally.
  • US Airways — It’s appropriate that US Airways and American Airlines are merging, as both carriers lag behind Delta and United in cabin updates. While the US Airways A330 fleet includes fully flat suites in Envoy class (see TPG’s review for more information), the 767 and 757 aircraft used for some international flights have old recliner seats that only recline to 160-170 degrees.
Noticing a change from American’s new 777-300ER to an older 777-200 could prevent an unwanted surprise upon boarding.

Identifying the Problem

Unfortunately, it’s really on you (as the traveler) to identify any of these last-minute equipment changes, as airlines will typically only send alerts for delayed or cancelled flights. In the days and weeks leading up to a long-haul international flight, I regularly check the operating airline’s website to make sure everything is moving along according to plan. You can use these four tools to help you do the same:

  1. Check your own reservation. Logging into your account and looking at your own reservation is a simple way to see what’s going on with your aircraft. Remember to go deeper than just the plane; as you saw above, not all 757’s or 767’s are created equal!
  2. Make a dummy booking. Search for your flight as if you were going to book it, paying especially close attention to the listed aircraft, amenities, and seat map. You’ll get an idea of how full the flight is (if the seat map shows more than half of the plane empty within a week of departure, I’d be a little nervous), and more importantly you can identify any discrepancies between your original booking and the operational plan.
  3. Look at the airline’s flight schedules. Many airlines have a page with future flight schedules, and the search results will often show you the amenities and/or seat map.
  4. Check your flight status. This final option is typically only available within two days of departure, but again, this will often tell you the aircraft scheduled to operate your flight.

The key with each of these methods is the seat map. In some cases the airline will indicate the type of seat you’ll have. For example, here’s Delta’s seat map for this Monday’s 6:45 am flight from San Francisco to New York-JFK:

Delta SFO-JFK seat map 1

And here’s the seat map for the exact same flight on Tuesday:

Delta SFO-JFK Seat Map 2

As you can see, Monday’s flight included the old recliner seats, while Tuesday’s offered the new flat-bed. Same flight number (1859), same route, same aircraft (757-200), but a noticeably different cabin.

In other cases, you’ll need to be smarter than the airline’s seat map and know the configuration of your flight. American, for one, just gives the seat map when you search its flight schedules in advance. Use a website like SeatGuru to figure out which 767/777 is being used on the route.

Another great example of this involves Delta’s seasonal service from New York-JFK to Reykjavik, Iceland. TPG reviewed this flight back in 2013, and I’m flying it at the end of May. When I booked it, the flight was scheduled to be operated by an older 757-200 with the same dated recliners that TPG had. However, a couple of months ago I noticed that it switched to the newer 757-200 with lie-flat seats. If you search for this flight (JFK-KEF) on June 4th or later, you’ll see a surprising result: for most of the summer, Delta is using a domestic 757-300 plane on this route. Talk about a different experience crossing the Atlantic!

Once you’re within 24 hours of the flight, you can continue to utilize the above methods, but checking your own reservation (online or through an app) will likely give you the most up-to-date information.

Amex
A lounge agent at the airport may be more flexible in helping you change your flight.

What to Do Pre-boarding

Ideally your flight would be operated with the promised aircraft and amenities. In a less than ideal but still great world, you’d notice an equipment swap days (or weeks) before your flight. A quick call to customer service is the best path to follow here. In the above example of Delta’s flight to Iceland, I’d be very surprised if the agent couldn’t remedy the situation either with a free change or a mileage refund to reflect the significant downgrade in services.

Hopefully you notice aircraft changes at least before you set foot on the plane. If this happens, there are a few things you can try to remedy the situation:

  1. Same-day confirm. Many airlines will allow you to immediately switch to another flight on the day of departure, pending availability. If you have elite status, this may be free. You can often do this at an airport kiosk, but try calling first. For more information, visit the operating airline’s website (American, Delta, United, or US Airways.
  2. Ask for an exception on the phone. In some cases, the formal same-day option won’t work according to the carrier’s published policies. The original fare class may be unavailable, or the new flight you want may not be in the permitted window for rebooking. In this case, try explaining the situation to the phone agent and politely asking for an exception.
  3. Ask at the lounge/gate. I’ve found that phone agents are hit and miss; some are fantastically flexible, while others won’t budge. You may have better luck with an agent in the lounge or even at the gate. These employees are used to dealing with last-minute changes, so they may be more empowered to “fix” the situation.

However, you might not have the flexibility to do this. If you have to be on your original flight, you could be stuck, as airlines’ contracts of carriage typically only guarantee transportation to your final destination, and most booking/flight status/reservation pages include a disclaimer along the lines of “In-flight amenities and services subject to change.”

That being said, all hope is not lost.

Contacting customer relations after an equipment downgrade could get you some bonus miles.
Contacting customer relations after an equipment downgrade could get you some bonus miles.

What to Do Post-boarding

Let’s say you’ve boarded a flight only to find an inferior product. At this point, there really isn’t any way to avoid it. Causing a big scene onboard will get you nowhere (and could cause the flight attendants to peg you as high maintenance or unruly and adjust their service accordingly). Your best bet is to set your feelings aside temporarily and make the most of your flight.

After the fact, however, you may want to contact the airline and express your disappointment that the plane was downgraded to an inferior one. Again, since contracts of carriage offer no guarantees for in-flight products, the airline isn’t obligated to give you anything. However, you may be offered bonus miles or a small voucher as a goodwill gesture for the inconvenience.

If you do pursue this route, keep the following things in mind:

  • Be brief. The more concise you are, the more likely the airline will actually read your letter and respond accordingly.
  • Be polite. You’ll get nowhere with a surly attitude.
  • Be reasonable. A swap from a fully flat to angled flat seat (for example) isn’t a terrible inconvenience, so don’t go asking for a complete refund of your ticket.
Sometimes you can't escape coach, but that doesn't mean you have to suffer.
An equipment swap can also impact your experience in economy.

Final thoughts

While this post focuses mainly on first or business class, the same ideas hold for economy class. If your plane is swapped out for an inferior one and you lose an expected amenity (or seat assignment) in coach as a result, the airline may be able to make it right, so long as you catch it in advance.

Admittedly, many of these complaints fit into the category of #FirstWorldProblems, but I do believe that you should get what you pay for. If airlines make a last-minute change and downgrade your in-flight experience, they should be willing to work with you to find an alternate routing.

What are your experiences with last-minute equipment changes?

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