What to do if an airline swaps equipment on your flight

Feb 6, 2020

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Reader Questions are answered twice a week by TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Ethan Steinberg.

If you’re trying to score an especially hard-to-get award seat, you can increase your chances by booking flights far in advance. A lot can change between the time you book and the time you fly, and in recent months we’ve seen Cathay Pacific make massive schedule adjustments in response to ongoing protests in Hong Kong and the emergence of a new coronavirus in mainland China. TPG reader David is scheduled to fly Cathay Pacific first class from Chicago (ORD) to Asia in December 2020, but just found out that Cathay Pacific will be eliminating first class on that route as of June 1

I currently have a first-class award ticket in December 2020 from ORD to BKK on Cathay Pacific, booked with American Airlines AAdvantage miles. What will happen to my first-class ticket when Cathay Pacific swaps this route to an A350 without a first-class cabin? Would they refund me the mileage difference? Would I be able to request a reroute through another city?

TPG READER DAVID

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First of all, kudos to David for staying on top of his reservation. He has several options to consider in this case, but not every airline will be good about proactively reaching out to customers affected by an equipment swap like this. This is why it’s a good idea to monitor your upcoming trips and use a service like ExpertFlyer (which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) to notify you of any aircraft changes.

Related: The beginner’s guide to ExpertFlyer

When Cathay Pacific announced the change, they only edited their schedule through Oct. 24, 2020. There’s a chance that they could bring a 777-300ER back on the Chicago route for the winter season, but that’s a huge gamble and one I wouldn’t recommend David to take. He should do everything in his power to sort this issue out now, while he has the benefit of time on his side.

David actually identified two of the best possible courses of action here. Assuming he’s happy with his overall routing, he could call American Airlines AAdvantage and change his booking to business class, which should result in a 40,000-mile refund (since one-way first-class awards cost 110,000 miles and one-way business-class awards cost 70,000). If this equipment change isn’t showing up in American’s system yet, he might need to escalate to a supervisor to make sure there are no change fees — yet another reason to get on this sooner rather than later.

Of course, Cathay Pacific first class is an incredible treat and a bucket-list item for many award travelers. If David still has his eyes set on the ultimate prize, he could look to reroute and fly to Hong Kong (HKG) from other U.S. gateways like Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), New York-JFK or Boston (BOS), all of which feature Cathay Pacific’s 777 first-class product.

Related: The ultimate guide to Cathay Pacific first class

This is where things start to get tricky. Most likely, David won’t just be able to select any flight he wants and switch to it. He’ll need to find another flight that has first-class award availability, which is not the easiest thing to do (especially if he has fixed travel dates already). If he can’t find Cathay Pacific first-class award space from any other U.S. gateway airport on the day he needs to fly, he could ask American Airlines to directly request the space from Cathay Pacific. This will likely require a supervisor as many front-line customer service agents don’t know that this is possible (or simply won’t do it), but given the extenuating circumstances here it never hurts to ask.

Bottom line

I can only imagine the disappointment of feeling like you landed a unicorn only to have it disappear. David shouldn’t give up hope yet, and he should be able to either downgrade to business class and get a mileage refund or find an alternative first-class routing. While he has a good 11 months to go until his trip, this is not something to wait around on. A complex resolution might take time for AA to broker, and there’s no good reason to wait.

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

Featured photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

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