Would you refuse a double upgrade?

And would you then sue the airline involved if they insisted you travel in First Class?

Last week reader Ryan left a comment on an old blog post of mine about when a Japan Airlines gate agent profusely apologized to me for a free upgrade:

@Lucky: Cathay Pacific was once sued in the Philippines for upgrading a passenger to first class… and Cathay Pacific lost! The case even reached the Supreme Court. http://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/jurisprudence/2003/mar2003/150843.htm

Naturally I was intrigued, and while this case goes back nearly two decades, it’s really interesting read.

The premise is that a couple was flying from Hong Kong to Manila on Cathay Pacific in economy class with two friends, and they were Marco Polo elite members. Both the couple and their friends received an operational upgrade to business class at check-in. Then when they got to the gate this happened:

Ms. Chiu approached Dr. Vazquez and told him that the Vazquezes’ accommodations were upgraded to First Class.  Dr. Vazquez refused the upgrade, reasoning that it would not look nice for them as hosts to travel in First Class and their guests, in the Business Class; and moreover, they were going to discuss business matters during the flight.  He also told Ms. Chiu that she could have other passengers instead transferred to the First Class Section.

Taken aback by the refusal for upgrading, Ms. Chiu consulted her supervisor, who told her to handle the situation and convince the Vazquezes to accept the upgrading.  Ms. Chiu informed the latter that the Business Class was fully booked, and that since they were Marco Polo Club members they had the priority to be upgraded to the First Class.  Dr. Vazquez continued to refuse, so Ms. Chiu told them that if they would not avail themselves of the privilege, they would not be allowed to take the flight.  Eventually, after talking to his two friends, Dr. Vazquez gave in.  He and Mrs. Vazquez then proceeded to the First Class Cabin.

Upon their return to Manila, the Vazquezes, in a letter of 2 October 1996 addressed to Cathay’s Country Manager, demanded that they be indemnified in the amount of P1million for the “humiliation and embarrassment” caused by its employees. They also demanded “a written apology from the management of Cathay, preferably a responsible person with a rank of no less than the Country Manager, as well as the apology from Ms. Chiu” within fifteen days from receipt of the letter.

It gets better:

In their complaint, the Vazquezes alleged that when they informed Ms. Chiu that they preferred to stay in Business Class, Ms. Chiu “obstinately, uncompromisingly and in a loud, discourteous and harsh voice threatened” that they could not board and leave with the flight unless they go to First Class, since the Business Class was overbooked.  Ms. Chiu’s loud and stringent shouting annoyed, embarrassed, and humiliated them because the incident was witnessed by all the other passengers waiting for boarding.

They also claimed that they were unjustifiably delayed to board the plane, and when they were finally permitted to get into the aircraft, the forward storage compartment was already full.  A flight stewardess instructed Dr. Vazquez to put his roll-on luggage in the overhead storage compartment.  Because he was not assisted by any of the crew in putting up his luggage, his bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome was aggravated, causing him extreme pain on his arm and wrist.  The Vazquezes also averred that they “belong to the uppermost and absolutely top elite of both Philippine Society and the Philippine financial community, [and that] they were among the wealthiest persons in the Philippine[s].”

In 1998 the court even ruled in the favor of the plaintiff:

WHEREFORE, finding preponderance of evidence to sustain the instant complaint, judgment is hereby rendered in favor of plaintiffs Vazquez spouses and against defendant Cathay Pacific Airways, Ltd., ordering the latter to pay each plaintiff the following:

a) Nominal damages in the amount of P100,000.00 for each plaintiff;

b) Moral damages in the amount of P2,000,000.00 for each plaintiff;

c) Exemplary damages in the amount of P5,000,000.00 for each plaintiff;

d) Attorney’s fees and expenses of litigation in the amount of P1,000,000.00 for each plaintiff; and

e) Costs of suit.

That was overruled by the Court of Appeals, which found the ruling excessive:

On appeal by the petitioners, the Court of Appeals, in its decision of 24 July 2001, deleted the award for exemplary damages; and it reduced the awards for moral and nominal damages for each of the Vazquezes to P250,000 and P50,000, respectively, and the attorney’s fees and litigation expenses to P50,000 for both of  them.

And even that was overruled by the Supreme Court:

WHEREFORE, the instant petition is hereby partly GRANTED. The Decision of the Court of Appeals of 24 July 2001 in CA-G.R. CV No. 63339 is hereby MODIFIED, and as modified, the awards for moral damages and attorney’s fees are set aside and deleted, and the award for nominal damages is reduced to P5,000.

No pronouncement on costs.


So in the end I guess receiving a double upgrade isn’t a way to get rich quick, but at least it makes for a good story! What do you think? Would you decline a complimentary upgrade?

Filed Under: Advice
  1. Heck! If I get an upgrade,I will simply say “Thank you” courteously and take it. What a BS ordeal they were playing!!!

  2. Generally, I would not refuse the double upgrade. However, as in the case, if I were traveling with a friend or partner, and they were not offered the same upgrade, then it depends on the nature of the relationship and the social considerations.

    It seems really strange that the GA couldn’t have simply upgraded two other passengers so that the four would remain together.

  3. It sounds weird to reject a free Upgrade to First Class, though i do understand the person’s situation in that moment, who wants to be a good host and travel with his companions.

    Given the different culture he would not want his guests to feel insulted by that.

  4. I have declined upgrades on many occasions – usually because I don’t want to split up a team traveling together. Sometimes, I also just don’t want the hassle of moving from a decent seat in Economy to a poor seat in Business (eg. a middle seat) on a short flight.

    My philosophy is always that I am doing the airline a favour by consenting to be reseated due to their oversale. It is no different than asking for volunteers for denied boarding, except the compensation type is different. Some people jump at the offer and others don’t.

  5. Arrogant assholes all over the world I guess :-).

    Give the upgrade to F to your guests and enjoy the free C yourself. That’s a good way to do business, instead of on the plane…

  6. I wouldn’t refuse the double upgrade to First but if I were the Vazquez’s, I would offer my First class seats to my guests, and my wife and I would sit in business class. From my knowledge of Filipino culture, I doubt that would insult the guests in any way.
    A similar experience happened to me when I was travelling with a friend in Emirates where I was given an op-up to business class since economy was overbooked. I simply offered that seat to my friend and she had an amazing 13 hour flight!

  7. I think that if I and my guests were planning on conducting business as well on the flight instead of just flying, I’d refuse an upgrade. That being said, that’s a rare case indeed!

  8. I can see refusing an ungrade because it would seperate me form somebody I am flying with. One time I flew with my parents on their first time flying. I had given the trip to them as a gift, abd really had a hard time talking them into flying. The last thiing I would had wanted would have then to be that sepetated from them during the flight.

    Why was the airline so insistent on forcing it? Let him have business class and give somebody else the 1st class. If there are no availaable seats in business. It was really stupid to say you can’t fly if you don’t fly the way we want you to.

  9. In questions of custom and hospitality, often cultures don’t understand each other. I have spent enough time in several different Asian countries to believe this could happen. Hopefully the more we travel, the more we recognize that our lens is different from someone else’s.

  10. It does seem like something went a little sideways here. As others have said, I too have given up upgrades depending on who I was with.

    For a few years, I was travelling a lot more than my boss, and when we flew together, I gave him the upgrade if it came through.

    I also once gave my mom the business class seat on a PS flight to SFO. That one hurt, but it was the right call.

    Am just not really sure why they couldn’t pull two other people out of C for F.

  11. I have refused upgrades domestically when UA has split my wife (who is not elite) off my PNR. One time we were forced to sit apart (connecting from international and the Y seats had been filled), so I emailed UA and we both got miles as compensation. A lawsuit seems a little overboard…

  12. I only refused upgrades when I was traveling with my wife and kids and I was the only one upgraded based on my status. I then preferred to stay in coach with them. I was once upgraded to first class on a CX flight from HKG to LAX. I had a business class ticket and once boarding when my boarding pass was scanned it beeped and the agent was “very apologetic” and told me she was sooooooo sorry but my seat had changed from 76G (CX747 upper level) to 1A. Well, I accepted her apologies and moved on to my first class seat. To “relieve the stress” of that situation I had to start with a glass of Krug. 🙂 An interesting situation happened when I was in business class on a flight to London on AA and once the door closed a gentleman came from the first class cabin and talked to a guy that was sitting next to a lady in business class. It happened that they were a couple and the guy had been upgraded to first class while his wife stayed in business. He asked the guy next to her if he wouldn’t mind swapping seats with him and move to first class. The guy did in a heartbeat.

  13. I think in this case, it wasn’t a bad idea of him to refuse. However, had it been me, I’d have let the wives take the FC seats, while staying and conducting business with the other husband in BC.

  14. I have rejected many upgrades; never offered a “double upgrade”; I guess I would reject that too if the circumstances deem so.

  15. A little ot but I think the lower courts went overboard on compensation. Might have had to do with the couple being among the ‘wealthiest and elite’ being able to influence the ruling a bit.

  16. A double upgrade would make me happier than a double rainbow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQSNhk5ICTI

    This actually sounds like a somewhat frustrating experience, if the FA was as brusque as they claim and would not let someone else take the upgrade. But suing over it seems like a major overreaction. I guess it’s good to know that ours isn’t the only legal system that suffers from frivolous lawsuits!

  17. The opinion makes it pretty clear that the Filipino Supreme Court was not amused by the claim at all, and was especially annoyed by the decision of the trial court. It even goes so far as to make some references to the possibility of the trial court decision being influenced by corruption – a pretty strong inference, and about as big a “smackdown” as you’ll see in the formal language of the courts. A very interesting read, indeed.

  18. While this lawsuit is clearly frivolous, it does raise the question of why the airline staff insisted on upgrading them when they declined (and why they berated them for declining, if in fact that’s what happened).

    Surely they could have found 2 other passengers who would eagerly accept the upgrade?

  19. I would have simply taken the upgrade, go to the person sitting next to my friend/travel partner ask politely ask: “Excuse me: Do you mind if we switch seats? I can offer you First instead of Business class”. Problem (usually) solved…

  20. Dave above is on to something IMO ….. MARIA LUISA MADRIGAL VAZQUEZ, the second plaintiff, is from one of the affluent families in the Philippines, and is apparently incredibly wealthy in her own right. It sounds like the whole family is highly entitled and litigious. Great Combination!

    They actually sound like really disgusting people. I hope that CX puts them on a “do not upgrade list”.

    If anyone else has time to waste…… here is where I started doing “my research” https://remembranceofthingsawry.wordpress.com/category/current-events/page/category/the-global-crowd/page/16/ (A good place to start is the paragraph beginning “After the 06 June 1972 passing of Vicente Madrigal”

  21. Where does this ‘double’ come from? The only person who was ever booked in Economy Class was the maid.

  22. @everywhere — They were booked into Y, and then all four persons were operationally upgraded to J. The Vazquezes were then further upgraded into F. Hence, the double upgrade.

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