Q: My husband and I arranged to fly my octogenarian mother to visit from Minneapolis to San Francisco for her birthday. We purchased a first-class ticket for my mom on Sun Country Airlines, not only for her comfort, but more importantly to assist her in the process of navigating through the airport and airport security. She has limited mobility and limited airline travel experience, and was flying solo. We purchased travel insurance to protect against possible travel interruptions.

The airline delayed her return trip from San Francisco to Minneapolis several times. Ultimately, Sun Country rebooked her on another flight, but in a coach-class seat.

Sun Country’s contract of carriage notes: “If the passenger is holding a confirmed seat on a higher class ticket and space is only available on a lower class of seating, Sun Country Airlines will refund the difference in fares.” So far, we have not received anything from the airline.

Can you help us get a refund for the difference between the cost of the return portion of the first-class ticket and the coach-class ticket?

A: Sun Country Airlines should have flown your mother back to Minneapolis in first class, as promised. If it didn’t, it should have offered an immediate refund of the difference between first class and coach.

That said, I love your case. I love everything about it. You bought travel insurance just in case something happened to Mom. I can tell you’ve already done the research on your legal rights. Citing Sun Country’s contract of carriage is brilliant. The airline does, indeed, promise a fare refund in writing. The Department of Transportation requires that airlines follow their contracts, so if push comes to shove, you also can get the government involved in this dispute.

But is that really necessary?

Before I answer that question, let’s talk about the difficult decision Sun Country had to make. Your mother’s flight record shows a delay on her initial return flight. To get her back to Minneapolis on time, Sun Country agreed to rebook her on a different flight, but it didn’t have room in first class. What’s more important — an on-time arrival in discomfort, or a delayed arrival in comfort? That’s not an easy choice, particularly for your mother. What would you choose?

You did almost everything correct in trying to resolve this. You wrote a brief, polite letter. That didn’t work. I recommended that you send an e-mail to one of the Sun Country executive contacts I list on my consumer-advocacy site, elliott.org.

Without any direct involvement from me — except for the fact that you copied me on your e-mails — Sun Country contacted you immediately and processed a refund request of $169. I hope your mother’s next flight is less eventful and more comfortable.


Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org.