SWISS’ Nonsense Response to DOT Complaints After Cancelling First Class Award Tickets

Earlier this month SWISS made first class award seats available to partner frequent flyer programs. They then cancelled the award reservations claiming it was a mistake.

One Mile at a Time complained to the Department of Transportation, and has since received SWISS’ response. It’s an artful piece of deflection and misinformation.

A few things to understand about these reservations.

  1. They were booked into the correct award booking class, inventory that SWISS made available

  2. They were booked at the correct published price per airline award charts, with the correct taxes collected

  3. SWISS doesn’t usually make first class awards available to partner airlines, restricting the space to Miles & More elite members

  4. However sometimes they do make this space available, they’ve done so at least twice in the last 18 months. In those cases SWISS honored the reservations, so there was no reason to expect this time would be different.

  5. Awards were booked via several frequent flyer programs, apparently most were booked via Aeroplan on Air Canada ticket stock. Aeroplan’s reward chart does accurately describe the usual situation that “SWISS First Class is not available for reward travel.” (It does not say SWISS first class is not permitted for reward travel, just factually that it’s generally not available, except of course when it is such as February 2017 and June 2016.)


Credit: SWISS

Here’s what SWISS responded with:

Dear Mr. Schlappig:

We received your correspondence from the Department of Transportation, in regard to your booking using your Aeroplan miles for travel on SWISS.

The reservation you purchased on November 30, 2017 was an erroneously published fare that was not calculated, published, or sold by SWISS. The affected itineraries were all mileage award tickets booked via Aeroplan on Air Canada ticket stock for one-way and round-trip travel in first class, despite the fact that award bookings are not permitted in First Class by SWISS as evidenced on the Aeroplan Miles Flight Reward Chart attached hereto.

Your ticket was issued without SWISS’ knowledge or approval. Swiss did not make any changes in our reservation system or have any procedural changes that would have authorized the bookings. The fare you purchased was clearly made available by Aeroplan in error. Pursuant to Rule 005(F) of SWISS’ tariff, which is part of the contract of carriage between SWISS and its passengers, “SWISS reserves the right to cancel reservations and/or tickets issued with an erroneously quoted fare . . .” and “void the purchased ticket . . .” please see attached SWISS tariff.

As soon as SWISS became aware of the erroneous fare, SWISS cancelled those tickets, and promptly contacted Aeroplan. Unfortunately, SWISS has no control over tickets issued by its interline partners. We are happy to see that Aeroplan has contacted the passengers affected by this to personally arrange first or business class redemption on another Star Alliance carrier or reinstate miles free of charge.

We realize, in light of the competitive nature of the airline industry, there is no guarantee of continued patronage and we are appreciative of your support.

Sincerely,

  • “The reservation you purchased on November 30, 2017 was an erroneously published fare that was not calculated, published, or sold by SWISS.”

    The fare was not erroneous. SWISS claims that making inventory available was a mistake on their part. That’s analogous to offering regular price fares during the Super Bowl when the airline only meant to offer full fare space.

  • “The affected itineraries were all mileage award tickets booked via Aeroplan on Air Canada ticket stock for one-way and round-trip travel in first class, despite the fact that award bookings are not permitted in First Class by SWISS as evidenced on the Aeroplan Miles Flight Reward Chart attached hereto.”

    Aeroplan accurately describes that SWISS first class usually isn’t available. But we know that SWISS does, from time to time, make the space available. They did so in June 2016. They did so again in February 2017. That demonstrates that it is in fact possible to book SWISS first class award space via Aeroplan. SWISS did not object in those cases.

    The fact that they permitted award travel via Aeroplan rebuts the claim that it isn’t permitted, they permitted it. And there was no reason for consumers to think this time would be different than the last two times.

    Moreover customers booked these awards with United miles, too, and United publishes no such statement.

  • “Your ticket was issued without SWISS’ knowledge or approval. Swiss did not make any changes in our reservation system or have any procedural changes that would have authorized the bookings. “

    All partner award tickets are issued without the operating carrier’s advance ‘knowledge or approval’ but that does not make interline ticketing somehow illegitimate.

    It’s correct that Swiss “did not make any changes in our reservation system…” other than, of course, loading award inventory without a point of sale restriction. So their claim about not structural or procedural changes here is accurate but also 100% beside the point.

  • “The fare you purchased was clearly made available by Aeroplan in error. “

    This wasn’t clear at all. In fact it wasn’t clear to me at the time. It was the correct price for the product offered, and SWISS has honored similar bookings in the recent past.

  • “Pursuant to Rule 005(F) of SWISS’ tariff, which is part of the contract of carriage between SWISS and its passengers, “SWISS reserves the right to cancel reservations and/or tickets issued with an erroneously quoted fare . . .” and “void the purchased ticket . . .”

    SWISS takes the position that customers have no contract with SWISS because tickets were purchased via Aeroplan, but that the tickets are governed by their contract of carriage.

    However there was no erroneously quoted fare, just inventory that SWISS now says they didn’t intend to make available but that they’ve honored in similar circumstances in the recent past making it impossible to know ex ante that this time would be different, that this was a mistake when they never claimed recent similar bookings were mistakes.

  • “We realize, in light of the competitive nature of the airline industry, there is no guarantee of continued patronage and we are appreciative of your support.”

    In other words, ‘go suck rocks, we do not want your business.”

When I posted about this first class availability it seemed like this was an exception to SWISS making first class award seats available to partners, similar to the exceptions they’ve made recently. I did not write “they don’t do this, it’s a mistake, who knows what will happen” because that’s honestly not what I thought was happening. And if it wasn’t obvious to me it’s unclear how it would be obvious to the median program member booking an award ticket.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Something really has to be done. There’s been a lot of incidents like this where DOT should get involved, reinstate their old rules on honoring fares, and put an end to this nonsense.

  2. careful what you ask for… the way it’s going now the DOT will get involved and it will force you to pay what the airlines say you should have paid for the ticket not the other way around

  3. @gilam I don’t think that’s the “next step” here; DOT required airlines to honor these fares in the very recent past.

  4. It’s comical watching some of you try to argue this. Aeroplan’s chart doesn’t say it’s “not usually (or generally) available”. It states “SWISS First Class is not available for reward travel.”

    https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/available

    “1 : present or ready for immediate use
    2 : accessible, obtainable
    3 : qualified or willing to do something or to assume a responsibility
    4 : present in such chemical or physical form as to be usable (as by a plant)
    5 law : valid —used of a legal plea or charge
    6 archaic : having a beneficial effect”

    So substitute one of the applicable definitions into the above Aeroplan award chart reference:

    “SWISS First Class is not [present/ready for immediate use/accessible/obtainable] available for reward travel”

    Also the Aeroplan T&Cs are not in your favor:

    https://www.aeroplan.com/terms_and_conditions.do

    “10. Aeroplan or its partners may refuse reward redemptions, reverse reward redemptions already claimed, or deduct miles from a member’s account where the redemption is based on an error in the mileage required for the redemption or an error in the amount of miles credited to an account, whether that error occurred through an act or omission of Aeroplan or one of its partners or suppliers. Each Aeroplan Member consents to the disclosure of the account information that is necessary or useful to achieve the reversal.”

    Save the energy for fighting legitimate cases of airlines reneging or screwing customers.

  5. @gilam if you we’re hinting about net neutrality, a better analogy would be the DOT forcing airlines to serve small airports with the same frequency as the big airports, and charge the same price for both routes.

  6. It is the job of government to get involved when its citizens are being abused and have no recourse against large corporations with infinitely more money and resources than any single person. We need stronger regulations against these remorselessly greedy businesses.

  7. @Ray LOL, I wouldn’t go so far as to say not being allowed to have first class tickets on the cheap is abuse. LOL.

  8. “We realize, in light of the competitive nature of the airline industry, there is no guarantee of continued patronage and we are appreciative of your support.”

    lol, this part of the letter was the icing on the cake – like the Swiss give a rat’s ass about some whiny blogger like Matthew and the “social media fallout”. Anyone who has spent any time in Switzerland knows how dour and much disdain they show anyone who isn’t Swiss.

    Now let’s see if Matthew actually puts his money where his mouth is and sues SWISS and Aeroplan. Good luck.

  9. The SWISS First Class awards were available through United’s Mileage Plus as well, so it’s likely the mistake was in fact due to SWISS’ actions. I saw availability on my United iPhone app for flights I had already booked for September 2018. By the time I got to my desktop to examine them more closely, they were gone (likely booked).

  10. @Ray, this is not a good analogy, as it doesn’t cover the two key aspects of net neutrality:
    1. The customer pays for a certain data amount and speed, and there is no difference to the ISP in the cost of a packet of data from Netflix or from a startup competitor.
    2. ISPs have monopoly power in most markets

    A better analogy would be:
    Net neutrality is like preventing an airport from taking kickbacks from one airline and processing them on time while artificially delaying competitors’ arrival and departure times and misrouting some of the luggage.

  11. @Eric — this was available to MileagePlus members also, United says no such thing, so what’s your defense of SWISS cancelling United issued awards?

    And that statement notwithstanding — which isn’t part of the TERMS AND CONDITIONS just a warning to customers to set expectations — is not universally true because in fact SWISS awards HAVE BEEN available and honored recently (this year) while that statement has been up, so it clearly does not control.

  12. SWISS and Aeroplan and United may become more attentive if CHASE and AMEX and Star Alliance get involved. I hope customers didn’t have to buy or transfer points to take advantage of a flash sale. Do customers get the benefit of full refund cancellation when we purchase tickets erroneously?
    I don’t know if there is any argument for erroneous fare publication in the modern world of computers. With a little programming consumer activity can be forecasted well before data is uploaded to a live system.

    Since more than one airline published availability and SWISS didn’t blame someone else, it is safe to presume SWISS made the mistake. Is it worth sacrificing brand name and reputation to recapture a few dozen or hundred tickets sold at a discount or loss? Star Alliance is really taking the hit here. They set up the game, made the rules, invited all the players, and serve as a Clearinghouse to guarantee transactions. Once transaction results become random, or worse, lopsided, irreparable harm is done. And to what end? SWISS may be able to brush off one or two DOT complaints, but may have overplayed their hand by preemptively stating that they may not be able to keep you as a customer.
    Perhaps they will retract their response and blame an erroneous executive for writing it?
    Also, as a customer, I would notify BBB. Arbitration may level the playing field.

  13. “Is it worth sacrificing brand name and reputation to recapture a few dozen or hundred tickets sold at a discount or loss? Star Alliance is really taking the hit here.”

    @Leef33 – I think you are overplaying your hand. If Dao couldn’t move the needle on United, what makes you think a series of award redemptions are going to really affect SWISS or the *A? It’s just not going to happen.

    Do I think it’s right? No. But SWISS should stick to its guns. The U.S. is moving away from consumer protections and regulation. They sit in a better place politically imo.

  14. What is the exact Aeroplan wording on Swiss First availability?

    In my experience, the DOT is not interested in second-guessing a reasonable interpretation of contract language, but if the Swiss email is telling something outright untrue in saying “award bookings are not permitted in First Class by Swiss as evidenced on the Aeroplan Miles Flight Reward Chart attached hereto””, then they will care. (And that they may have made a couple of exceptions in the past would not overrule their reliance on the flat prohibition language in this instance – if Swiss is correct that that is what it says.)

  15. @Eric Not to gang up on you, but you’re trying to give a legal analysis. Something tells me you’re not a lawyer. If you are, God help your clients.

  16. @Gary – perhaps you could clarify what “made first class award seats available to partner programs” actually means in terms of each program’s responsibility to one another within an alliance.

    When I read in SWISS’ response “an erroneously published fare that was not calculated, published, or sold by SWISS”, I’m drawn to the “erroneously published” wording and wonder whether Aeroplan and MileagePlus could have each acted unilaterally and in error to publish these awards.

  17. @Helios — Swiss loads inventory for its flights including award inventory and places any restrictions on that inventory they wish such as point of sale (“Miles & More Only”).

    Aeroplan, Mileage Plus, and other Star Alliance frequent flyer programs saw this space because SWISS made O inventory greater than zero for points of sale beyond just Miles & More. The published FARE was not erroneous. The published INVENTORY was UNINTENTIONAL.

    This is award inventory they intended to load, they just failed to do it properly so that only Miles & More elites could book it.

  18. @Gary – thanks for the clarification. Sounds like this touches on the “what changed?” question Lucky brings up in his follow-up. Seems like if Aeroplan was now wholly not eligible, instead of mostly not eligible (since Aeroplan members have been allowed to secure award inventory before), to access these fares, they would shoulder some responsibility as part of alliance membership regs to ensure their IT did not publish this inventory even if SWISS loaded it in error.

    But that’s all invisible to the consumer, so I see how SWISS is in error here.

  19. Perhaps they should rename it to SWITCH Airlines. You purchase whatever they sell you, and they SWITCH it to whatever they need it to be.
    The fact they acknowledge that they can preemptively state, in words, that they are both sorry and willing to lose the customer tips me off that we have no voice with them. That attitude will inevitably permeate throughout the company culture, and should be carefully suppressed when it has a chance to manifest itself, as in this case.

    I am surprised that this has happened 2 or 3 times before, and that Star Alliance, Chase, Amex, Lufthansa (parent company?), do not care. I am not surprised that DOT doesn’t care since their objective is focused on preventing accidents and mishaps.
    This is great news for WOW, Norwegian, Iceland Air, RyanAir, and any cut rate airline that SWISS is now competing with. Those airlines don’t care either, but they don’t insult us with high fares or pretend to care. And, I haven’t heard of them reneging on mistake fares. Perhaps they have their act together more than they are given credit for.
    Appreciate the heads up Gary.

  20. I have to say that I’ve been very tempted by Swiss in recent weeks – they offer out of France a couple of 2 for 1 deals in First, very attractive (accidental marketing here), however stories like this concern me. Swiss in it’s dealings with customers regarding errors gives me the impression it is not an airline I want to deal with. Yes, there product looks nice, but after a while mud sticks.

    I’m not all about morals and ethics, because I think in life you make the best of what you can. However, when in a privileged position, as an elite airline with significant room for manouvre, this strikes me as a big corp kicking a little guy and for what benefit? To me this damages the appeal of their product.

    Of course, everyone is different, I have no interest in award bookings on Star Alliance, but I don’t see a company treating paying potential customers in such a manner as ‘aspirational’. And maybe that’s it, they only want the truly rich. In which case, good luck to them, but they’re a commercial airlines and the truly rich couldn’t care which airline and would rather fly privately.

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