KLM Airlines – When An Upgrade Is Really A Downgrade

KLM Seat Map KLM Seat PitchFor those of us who fly frequently for work or business, there seem to be fewer and fewer perks afforded these days to frequent flyers these days. The entire experience of business travel is often a stressful and soul destroying one, fraught with long queues at the security, lost passengers, cancelled/delayed flights and very little in the way of edible food or on board perks once you get on board your flight. And with airlines these days maximising load factors with flights nearing full capacity by way of selling more Economy seats and having fewer Business Class seats, the days of a freebie upgrade have all but diminished.

So imagine the joy experienced by one KLM passenger who was told he was being upgraded on a flight from Prague to Amsterdam, only to have that jubilant feeling dashed immediately when he was told by the ground crew that although he was being bumped up to Business Class, he wasn’t allowed to avail of the creature comforts everyone else was to enjoy near the pointy end of the flight. WHAT?!

This is what happened to a passenger who wrote about his experience in a complaint to KLM. KLM’s new preferred method of dealing with customer queries, compliments and complaints is via their Facebook and Twitter social media tools. Given the very public nature of social media, it means that the airline’s dirty laundry is aired in public for all and sundry to see, and this one makes for interesting reading.

I managed to reach out to the passenger in question to find out more. It turns that on his return flight back to Amsterdam, he was told he was being “upgraded”. BUT, he was told he wouldn’t be served a business class meal and wouldn’t be getting the frequent flyer points either. To make matters worse, when he was nearing the plane, it was only then that he realised that his preferred seat – which was a window seat in the Economy Comfort section in KLM’s premium economy cabin – was substituted for an aisle seat. Not only that, but the aircraft in question has no difference in seat pitch or seat comfort between the Business Class and the Economy Comfort. So he was effectively moved from a seat he paid extra for to a seat he didn’t want and has clearly stated in his passenger profile on KLM’s frequent flyer programme that he doesn’t like.

But wait, it gets better. Because whilst he knew he wasn’t getting a Business Class meal, the cabin crew made doubly sure that both he AND his fellow passengers knew that he was “upgraded” by way on blabbing out loud to him during the cabin service that he was only entitled to an economy meal. It was at this stage, he explained, that he reached boiling point, because in his eyes, he had not been “upgraded”, despite the ground staff and cabin crew repeatedly using that phrase to him. If anything, he explained, he had received a “seat reassignment”.

When he arrived home, he wrote a complaint to KLM, expecting the airline to acknowledge the error of their ways, and offer up a remedy or token of apology, but their responses only further served to rankle him. His biggest frustration, he emailed to me, was that the airline continued to reply scripted responses feigning platitudes of insipid and insincere apologies over his experience during the flight, and never once offering anything at all to make-up for the fact that his “upgrade” wasn’t an “upgrade”, but rather a “downgrade”.

In his original opening complaint, he wrote to KLM explaining the dictionary definition of an upgrade, i.e. the definition of an upgrade is “an occurrence in which one thing is replaced by something better, newer, more valuable, etc”, and further explaining that being moved from a preferred seat, to a worse location AND not being treated the same as your fellow passengers in Business Class does not, by definition, meet the criteria of an “upgrade” and therefore should not be referred to as such. It’s hard to disagree with the man.

From their replies (see the attached conversation), however, it’s pretty self evident that the customer services people either didn’t understand his point, didn’t care about his point, or weren’t empowered/inclined to do something to make it up to him. Even when he pointed out to KLM that Business Class is not just a seat, it’s a service – a selling point that the likes of Singapore Airlines, Qatar, Emirates, Virgin and Cathay capitalise on – the airline failed to acknowledge the issue.

I know many of you will look at this and think it’s another one of these “First World Problems”. That it’s merely someone being difficult. However, there is a valid point to his argument, which is that if an airline sells the concept of a frequent flyer programme to customers, with one of those benefits being upgrades and preferential treatment for it’s most revered passengers. When they treat that loyal customer like a second class citizen, that same passenger who has helped keep that airline in business, then maybe it’s time to start thinking about flying with someone else.

The differences in customer service, quality of product offerings on-board with Asian/Middle Eastern airlines versus European Flag Carriers and US airlines has long been discussed in travel forums across the internet. Everyone knows that the Gold Standard of in-flight service and customer service on the ground is held by the likes of Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Emirates Airlines.It’s the principle concept of good customer service in any business and in any industry, and these three lead the way. And they have proven that if you treat your customers well, they will come back time and again. But treat them with contempt and you’ve lost not just one, but perhaps hundreds of potential customers, new and old. A lesson KLM’s latest financials would suggest that they cannot afford to ignore.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, KLM will do regarding this issue. They had made noises about offering our weary traveller a “surprise” on his next flight. But it appears that doing their “utmost” meant doing nothing at all. It’s one thing to ignore and shrug off a complaint, it’s quite another to promise you’ll resolve it, and then break that same promise. My guess is that this wasn’t the first passenger KLM have done this to, and it will most likely not be the last. And scripted false apologies on Facebook are also not the way to handle such things either. But if you, like me, travel a lot for business, you might might find yourself also getting a “downgrade” soon.

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2 thoughts on “KLM Airlines – When An Upgrade Is Really A Downgrade

  1. I couldn’t agree with IrishmanAbroad more!! I, too, was treated like an unwelcome guest on my Christmas flight from Vancouver-Prague-Budapest-Vancouver. Basically kicked out of my 2nd choice seat in business to accommodate a “family” that upgraded or were KLM upgraded at the last moment due to overbooking. I had booked my business seat six months in advance and was moved around like a chess piece on a board. I will never fly with them again as am sure many others won’t who heard of my plight. The KLM facebook page is totally useless in resolving complaints and double talk their way out of every response.

  2. Never use social media for such request. The best way is to log into your FB account, go into the past flights and there you have the chance of selecting fill a complain or a compliment. The answer there are usually pretty good. I managed to get priority bags delivered in priority at the carrousel for an airport.

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