Air France Downgrading Non-Elite First Class Award Tickets

Update: My contact at Air France has informed me that first class award tickets were supposed to have been limited to elite accounts since June of 2007, so any award bookings in first class since then weren’t supposed to happen. However, Air France has honored the ticket in question as issued.

In December I redeemed 125,000 Air France Flying Blue miles to fly Air France A380 first class from Los Angeles to Paris. I had an awesome flight, and especially loved the Air France first class lounge Paris.

Air France A380 first class cabin

The booking experience was quite a rigamarole, as there seems to be some confusion at the Flying Blue call center over whether non-elite members can redeem miles for Air France first class or not.

Air France already only makes first class award bookings available at the “flex” level, so nowadays a transatlantic first class award will cost you 162,500 miles one-way.

While in the past Flying Blue had a policy of only allowing elite members to redeem miles for first class, my understanding was that when they changed their award chart mid-last year, non-elite Flying Blue members could also make bookings in first class. Many phone agents agreed with me even after checking with supervisors.

Anyway, through my award booking service we’ve booked quite a few passengers in Air France first class, including one a couple of weeks ago. So I was shocked when they forwarded me this email they received from Flying Blue, downgrading them to business class:

Dear ______,

We are hereby to inform you that unfortunately your booking of ______:

– Loz Angeles / Paris: Flight AF ___ on __________ has been cancelled due to the terms and conditions of the Flying Blue programme.

Please accept our sincere apology for the inconvenience caused. We also have refunded your Miles and voided the charge to your credit card.

We also have credited 1 500 Miles to your account and prepared a new booking of ______ on Business Class with 62 500 Miles and USD 266.10 for the airport tax charge excluding the USD 22 booking fee, as a gesture of our goodwill to our members.

Should you need more assistance to confirm your ticket, your Flying Blue team remains at your disposal either by telephone (+1) 800 375 8723 from United States or via the and websites.

We thank you for your continued loyalty to the Flying Blue programme.

So apparently the policy is in fact that only elite members can redeem miles for first class, even though it doesn’t seem to be clearly published anywhere. If that’s the case it would be fine for Flying Blue to send the member an email saying they’ll honor this ticket as a one-time exception, but that for future reference non-elite members can’t redeem miles for first class.

However, it’s a clear violation of Department of Transportation regulations (section 399.88) to downgrade/change a booking after ticketing without the consent of the passenger. As usual, though, it doesn’t really matter what government regulations say when the airlines don’t adhere to the rules. You can always file a claim, but that’s not especially useful when the ticket is for travel in a week…

I’ve reached out to a contact at Air France in hopes that he’ll be able to help, though figured I’d post this warning anyway, for anyone that might have been considering a redemption in Air France first class.

Has anyone else booked an Air France first class award as a non-elite and received a similar notice?

Filed Under: Awards, Flying Blue
  1. That is absolutely a violation, it is a valid ticket, i would certainly call them back and escalate it to a supervisor. Look, i know you had a nice time at their lounge, but let’s just admit that they are a crappy carrier.

  2. Depending on how much time there is between the flight and cancellation, this might fall under EC61/2004 with regards to cancellation or involuntary downgrade.

  3. Air France is definitely gonna feel this one–likely from both sides of the ocean. Probably should’ve just honored existing tickets and made it policy going forward. How many are we really even talking about here? A few hundred tickets MAX, I’m guessing…

  4. I took AF last year on reward (in July) and was advised that 1st Class was not an option since I’m not Elite. We flew the A380 in Business and I can tell you the 1st Class product is weak. They were serving the same champagne, food was similarly good as well as the seat. After looking at the A380 1st Class set-up I didn’t feel I was missing anything in Business. LH would be another story. I certainly would never waste 162,500 one-way.

  5. Congratulations, Air France, and KLM along with you. You just made my list of airlines to NEVER bother contemplating doing any business with, whether on an award or revenue basis. I don’t know nearly as much as others who have commented here about DOT rules, but I know sickening pettiness and cheap bureaucracy when I see it. And I avoid it like the plague.

  6. Definitely subscribed to this to see the outcome.

    Lucky – can you try and keep up with this (between your trips 🙂 ) and let us know? From my (very) limited knowledge of the regs, I don’t see how they can get away with it.

  7. Y’know Ben, it’s funny, a couple of weeks ago I was buying a revenue first class ticket ex-JNB for an upcoming trip, and I defaulted to Lufthansa out of habit. But this time, I actually paused for, like, 20 seconds to re-consider if I wanted to give AF a chance again based on your review. I decided to rely on my own known (very disappointing) multiple experiences with them in first and said “no”; the only thing I like about their first class product, hard or soft, is their ground service and lounge at CDG, and frankly that’s the only thing “world class” about them.

    I think Carl (comment #1) may have hit it on the head when he calls them a “crappy carrier.” While not my choice of words, I really can’t argue with Carl…indeed I sort of find myself nodding in agreement.

    This stupid move of theirs just reconfirms to me that this is a carrier and a company that I will continue to avoid completely. LH and SWISS have first class products that are world class and competitive (I ruled out SWISS for this trip b/c it would have had me connecting to UA for the US leg, and like AF, I avoid giving UA cash when I can help it). This is (as Scott, comment #9 said) cheap bureaucracy and it’s appalling.

    And it’s likely against regs.

    Shame, shame, shame on AF. I really hope you push the matter with them.

  8. @NYBanker: I do. Sure the seat in f is bigger but not worth paying for (commenting on the A380). I would select another airline if f was my choice. Serving a non-vintage $35 champagne in AF f is unacceptable. Food offering is also not that different between the classes. Fly BA First and you’ll be sure to never fly AF First again.

  9. @TravelinWilly

    LX has the same policy of restricting F awards to their elite members and LH does not release F awards to partners until two weeks out. Not that much different from AF.

  10. PLEASE file a complaint regardless of the outcome. This is a clear violation being met with typical French attitude — rules and law are for the little people.

  11. @anon,

    Huh? Did you mean to reply to someone else? I’m not sure how you draw a line from my post to LH’s and LX’s award redemption policies. Did you *read* my post? Honestly?

    I’m entirely aware of LH’s and LX’s award redemption policies, and nor do I particularly care about them. They announce their changes ahead of time, and people make their travel choices based on that info. Once booked, LH and LX honor the awarded tickets. HUGE difference between LH and LX, and what AF has done.

    Nobody here is upset about AF restricting premium awards. People are peeved because AF rescinded an ISSUED TICKET and downgraded someone based on un-understandable “rules” that are vague even on their own website. *That’s* the contentious element that you may have missed.

  12. @TravelinWilly
    I didn’t really follow it, but I believe LX was involved in a sh*tshow of its own where it canceled tickets based on a mistake fare, when traveled already commenced.

  13. If you can survive the FlyingBlind call center and actually get a redemption booked, I think you deserve first class.

  14. Trust me, as a former, and thankfully so, a former US based high level position with Air France – they are on par or lower than a third world airline. Does the word ‘socialist’ apply? I don’t know, but there was an instance when AF downgraded three first class revenue passengers to business class because a last minute booking flash in the pan celebrity was traveling (on a contract business class ticket) with their assistant (2 seats total then) and wanted that third seat as a buffer from others up front. Not only did AF only collect two fares (discounted contract business class), they gave that third first class seat away ($0.00 revenue) – they downgraded the three originally ticketed and paid full fare first class passengers. This was done in the office, not at the airport – and yes – after my vehement disagreement – I was called on the carpet for being insolent.

    Best advice – stick with a real premier carrier and avoid AF like you’d avoid contracting Ebola!

  15. Does that rule apply to award tickets when the stated policy is ambiguous?

    Playing devils advocate, AF may have a case that this reservation was obtained by a third party and that they should have known the rules explicitly. And, maybe, if the award mile beneficiary had booked this himself, a good gesture by the airline would have been more evident.

    I am not defending AF by any chance, just wanted to know more about this case, and if the laws can run into murky waters due to award ticketing rules and third party booking services. I learned a lot in the Swiss case and see that they got away with very nasty policies ( like public humiliation of ticket holders in Zurich )

    Please keep us informed since this is not yet on FT

  16. With just about every airline doing the transatlanic having some sort of shortcoming, to say ‘I’ll drop them from my list’ we are all finding that the number of NA-EU carriers grows thinner as the years go by. BA/IB/LH/LX/AA/UA/DL/BR/VA/SAS/AC/Aerlingus/LOT/KL/AF/OS/Alitalia/AB/NORW/FA/TAP/TK/AERFLT/ From these I’d stick with Swiss/Virgin/Austrian/Air Canada/Finnair/Luft/and AA from a consistency point of view. And to boot consider that SAS/Alitalia/KL/IB/TAP/LOT/OS/Brussels/Aeroflot/Finnair fly to only a very few NA cities to begin with. Thin pickings indeed.

  17. @ Lucky – please keep us updated! This is a very weird situation. Has this happened to multiple people or just once? If it was just this one case, I wonder if this is similar to what Classictraveler relayed — perhaps, AF needed first-class seat(s) for a revenue/VIP client, needed to downgrade someone, and then used the whole “non-Elite” excuse to downgrade your client(s).

    @ Jorge & others — I must’ve missed the Swiss fiasco. Could anyone point to a thread/blog post about what had happened?

  18. WOW – haven’t had a chance to read the entire thread of comments but saw the reference in FlyerTalk. What happens in the following scenario – I am ELITE, book an F class award then lose my elite status after the the qualifying year ends. Technically, I booked while an ELITE but will travel as a NON-ELITE.

  19. Ivan-just to clarify: the 3 people downgraded were on paid revenue first class fares but the 2 people who were upgraded were on specially negotiated fares. Actually, their contracted fare was full Y+ a little with a guarantee C seating.
    So…AF downgraded 3 full F/P’s to C, technically double upgraded 2 Y’s to F/P, AND, collected $0.00 for the 3rd F/P seat that the celebrities wanted as a buffer between rows. Oh, and let’s not forget the refund they ended up giving on the difference F/P downgraded to C.
    What a clusterbunch they are!

  20. I don’t think the update represents a reasonable statement on Air France’s part. They used to be explicit on limiting F awards to elites, and reoved the explicit restriction. Further, last year they released F awards as promo awards and those were not limited to elites. So suggesting that it’s been a consistent policy for years isn’t really tenable. They may have meant for it to be but haven’t behaved as though that’s the case.

    Further, if this is a rule then their systems shouldn’t allow it. If they take a credit card on an award, they need to honor it.

    Glad they did in this case.

  21. in your opinion, whats the best skyteam award program to deposit miles, AF?.. allows 1ways & low prices for domestic USA flights. thanks

  22. @ Mr. Coolin your — Well personally my favorite SkyTeam program is Korean Air SkyPass since you can book Korean Air first class with those miles, which is a great product. That being said, depending on what your redemption goals are, other programs like Air France could make sense as well.

  23. @lucky
    best skyteam program to deposit miles if looking to book 1way economy domestic awards please?

  24. @ Mr. Cool — That’s a toughie. Delta will *eventually* allow one way awards, so would be a non-horrible option, probably. If you want to redeem for one-way wards now I would recommend Air France Flying Blue, but do keep in mind they only have access to Delta’s saver award space, which can be tough to come by, especially domestically.

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