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Why won’t British Airways refund your seat reservation fees when you cancel a flight?

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I thought it was worth taking a look today at one of the most egregious money-making schemes pursued by British Airways – the refusal to refund seat reservation fees if you cancel your booking.

This is a topic which has come up from time to time in our comments section, although we have never looked at it in an article.  What triggered this was a comment from reader Andrew on Monday.

Andrew had cancelled two Avios seats in Club World to the US.  All of his Avios and other charges had been refunded, less the £35 per head administration fee, as usual.

However, British Airways refused to refund £500 of seat reservation fees.

BA seat reservation fees

Can you really spend £500 on seat reservation fees for a couple?

Unfortunately, yes.

Rhys wrote this article in May about ‘fee creep’ at British Airways.

We used an example there of Heathrow to New York, where seat selection would cost up to £364 return for a couple.

Whilst we didn’t look at the US West Coast at that time, I just did a dummy booking for Heathrow to San Francisco next May.   As you can see, for someone without British Airways Gold or Silver status or the oneworld equivalent, if you want to sit on the top deck of the Boeing 747 it will cost you £139 per person each-way – a total of £556 return.  Bargain.

British Airways seat reservation fees

There are two issues here, I think: is it made clear that your reservation is non-refundable? and is this ‘fair’?

Is it made clear that seat reservations are non-refundable?

Let’s look at the first issue.  When you go into ba.com to select seats, this is what you see (click to enlarge):

The terms and conditions are not shown, but require you to click a hyperlink.  Not ideal, but probably acceptable.  But when you click the hyperlink, you get this:

This is meant to be a summary of the key terms and conditions.  At no point does it say that seat reservations are non refundable.

If you click on ‘More terms and conditions’ it DOES bring up a lengthy pop up box of rules.  If you scroll almost to the bottom, it DOES say that seat fees are non-refundable if you choose to cancel your flight.  I would argue, however, that this is too many clicks from the booking screen to be watertight.

Regardless of the T&Cs, is this ‘fair’?

You might say ‘it doesn’t matter if it’s fair’.

Except, under UK contract law, it does.

There are lots of pieces of regulation which could come into play here such as the Consumer Rights Act 2015, the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977, the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, the Sale of Goods Act 1979 and the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982.

Here is a very concise summary from the Government’s own website:

Businesses can keep your deposit or advance payments, or ask you to pay a cancellation charge, only in certain circumstances:

If you cancel the contract, the business is generally only entitled to keep or receive an amount sufficient to cover their actual losses that directly result from your cancellation (eg costs already incurred or loss of profit).

Businesses must take reasonable steps to reduce their losses (eg by re-selling the goods or services).

Non-refundable deposits should only be a small percentage of the total price.

Cancellation charges must be a genuine estimate of the business’ direct loss.

A good base line is that a consumer contract can only be imposed if it is ‘fair’.

It is very, very difficult to see how retaining a payment of £500+ for seat selection is ‘fair’ when the airline was happy to cancel the underlying seats without penalty.

Seat selection fees also appear ‘unfair’ in terms of the ‘power’ given to each party.  British Airways, according to the small print, is free to throw you out of your allocated seats for any reason it wants:

“A paid seat request cannot be guaranteed, as it may need to be changed for operational, safety or security reasons, even after boarding the aircraft.”

“Paid seating will not be refunded if you cancel your flight, are involuntarily upgraded or are not suitable to sit in the seat type you have selected.”

“In relation to BA marketed and operated flights, if, in accordance with your fare rules, you choose to move to a different flight, you will be entitled to choose an equivalent seat on your new flight. However if an equivalent seat is not available the difference paid will be forfeited and will not be refunded. In relation to other carrier marketed flights, if you choose to move to a different flight, you will not be entitled to choose an equivalent seat on the new flight and you will not be entitled to a refund.”

Note that, if BA upgrades you, you don’t get a seat refund.  It is difficult to imagine a court agreeing with that, especially if you paid for seats purely in order to be together but – due to the upgrade – you were separated.

Oddly, if the whole transaction was non-refundable (the seat and the seat reservation), you may be able to make a case for retaining the seat fee.  You bought a product in advance at a cheaper price by buying it in advance rather than at short notice, with the trade off that the transaction was non-refundable.  This is seen as ‘fair’ under UK law.  The seat fee could be seen as part of the overall cost.

In the case of an Avios redemption – or a fully flexible cash ticket – it is a different story.  The airline is willing to refund the flight.  It is therefore virtually impossible, in my mind, to put together a ‘reasonable’ justification for keeping the seat selection fees.

Is it worth fighting this if it applies to you?

I would be very interested to hear from any HFP readers who have taken British Airways to CEDR arbitration (here is our guide on how to do it) or, failing that, to MCOL / Small Claims (here is our guide on how to do that) over seat selection fees.

In reader experience, British Airways will almost always fold if you take a compensation claim to arbitration or MCOL.  Whether right or wrong, the cost of defending the claim makes no sense.  When BA doesn’t fold, it usually loses.  The problem is that these cases do not set legal precedent.  Settlement usually comes with the requirement to sign a confidentiality agreement, so it cannot even be publicised.

It would require a full court hearing to take place before legal precedent was set, as happened in – for example – Jet2 vs Huzar, the case which set the precedent that mechanical failure was not an excuse for not paying EC261 compensation.

Until someone does that, however, British Airways will carry on attempting to extract large sums for seat selection fees on cancelled flights.

The only good news on the horizon is that, with the new Club Suite, the seats are created more or less equal and there is very little justification for spending money on a reservation.  Even if you end up not being able to sit together, other passengers should be more willing to move onboard to accommodate you as they would not be worse off.

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Comments (172)

  • Bonglim says:

    Some have said they booked seats to make sure they sit together – e.g. for honeymoon. I had a similar problem recently…
    We booked 2 CW seats to Cancun. We have no status, so were looking closely to make sure that there were 2 seats together available, so that we could nab them when the check in opened. It got down to one pair left….
    My wife (fiancee then) and I agreed not to pay the money, but she was going to call BA lay it on thick and try to convince them to give us seats together for free. I said it would never work…

    When she called however she was told that 2 of the used up seats would already have been allocated to us together. The implication is that would automatically have been done, not that they were doing anything special because we called. So we would not have to worry and we would be seated together when the check in opened. They were correct and two of the existing blacked out seats were us together – and the cabin was pretty full overall.

    So whereas there are no guarantees, I would in the future be fairly confident that a pair of CW tickets bought together were seated together without handing over 500 pounds. Anyone had the opposite experience?

    • Nick_C says:

      I think that’s pretty typical, and that BA will try to seat couples and families together whenever possible. Couples should always be OK on a 747, 777, or 380 where they will get the middle pair in a 2-4-2 configuration. Single people are not going to book these seats.

      I wonder how many people panic closer to departure, and pay to book seats similar to the ones they have been pre-allocated.

      I’ve certainly checked availability a day or two before the flight, and then seen lots of seats open up at T-24.

      On my last CE flight, the only empty seats showing the day before the flight were on row 7. When check in opened, I had been pre allocated row 1.

  • vand says:

    O/T that I wish didn’t have to be –

    Are there any plans to implement a ‘good’ commenting system, and something like a separate forum for O/T?

    I think HFP is awesome and hats off to Rob for everything that goes in to it. I think the ability to have a good discussion per article is not. If something like Disqus was added, users could upvote, sort comments etc instead of the paginated mess we have currently. I’m making a stronger comment here since it seems like audience engagement through comments is becoming as important as content now.

    And then a forum would stop the constant O/T that makes trawling through relevant comments almost impossible.

    Just my 2 cents!

    • Bails from Oz says:

      Personally I’d enjoy the comments much more if the persistent O/T comments were removed quickly by the site administrator.
      Just saying…

      • Rob says:

        Disqus is a dog. Most sites remove it quickly.

        • vand says:

          Cool – that was an example I guess. But a way comments could be more easily parsed by readers in general

        • Lady London says:

          +1 I use thé odd site that uses Disqus and what we have here is better. Quality hère is in thé commentés anyway – far, far above other sites.

          Plus have you noticed how often Rob will cover the same topic as other bloggers, but with so much intelligent added value that is simply not found elsewhere?

          The changes to Lufthansa Miles & More being a recent example – GoCompare the others that just print panic or what they get on a press release without any added value or evaluation.

      • Polly says:

        OT can be useful also…

  • Paul G says:

    PURE COINCIDENCE??? After this Post yesterday I commented that I was still waiting for my Avios refund for seats I had cancelled because of the BA strike and a fellow reader suggested the threat of small claims court might galvanise them into action. Today I sat down to take action and went into my Avios transaction statement to find my Avios points were refunded YESTERDAY. Pure coincidence or did Rob’s article shake someone up at BA to get this problem sorted???? If the latter then thank you Rob

  • Gregor Andreewitch says:

    The system of paying to reserve a seat, even in the highest fare categories and without a meanigful loyalty staus is an absoloute rip off! On recent fligths to London and after having waited until 24 hours prior to check-in I couled not choose my seat despite the fact that nearly half the plane was empty!! Every othwer seat selection would have cost – in economy – minimum Euro 16 or GBP 13 !!

    We – the travelling public should stand up and boycott BA until they listen to their customers and do something about it. Give the choice I will not take any other BA One world flights. I am in the hotel business…and if we treateds our guest l;ike airliones …not a single guest woudl stay or return.

    • Nick Burch says:

      Higher fare classes should let you pick seats for free, it’s only the cheaper ones which lack it as standard. Quite a few travel agents have deals with BA that let their customers pick seats for free even on cheaper tickets.

      As a BA shiny card holder, I appreciate that I can book or change fairly last minute, and still get a decent seat. Compare that with other airlines who let everyone pick, and it’s quite annoying that your last-minute expensive ticket gets you the worst seats as that’s all that’s left…

  • Andrew James says:

    Thank you Rob for taking the issue up. This is the Andrew who made the post about the BA seat reservation charges and the refusal to refund. The clear way you have presented things confirms my issues, and will certainly help with a Money Claim Online or Small Claim case. As a start point, I am trying to negotiate with BA but then will have to consider CEDR arbitration as the first step. (The guide that is posted on HFP 10 May 2017 offers useful advice.)
    There are three issues for me: why are seat reservations not free when booking business class? – why are the charges for seat reservations so high? – and why are no refunds given for seat reservations when the flight themselves are refunded.
    The issues of no refunds for seat reservations charges may also come under unfair contract terms, which “…might also be unfair if they weigh the contract significantly in your favour, eg: by providing for excessive cancellation charges and automatic loss of all upfront payments…” The Competition and Markets Authority and or local trading standards will then also have an interest.
    Currently I am waiting on a response from BA – will keep you posted.

    • Shoestring says:

      go straight to MCOL and ignore CEDR in this instance – CEDR are much weaker (in law), don’t scare BA and will probably find against you in any case because of the T&Cs

    • Rob says:

      Points 1 and 2 are commercial issues for BA. You won’t get anywhere challenging that. Your case is 100% around the fairness / legality of not refunding them.

      • Shoestring says:

        agreed – go to MCOL, ignore your points 1 & 2 as they are baseless (in law) & concentrate on your point 3 [and why are no refunds given for seat reservations when the flight themselves are refunded].

        If you wanted an easy life/ a much better and more concise MCOL case, write down your position very tightly on the BA thread on FlyerTalk for comment – & you’ll get some excellent feedback/ building of your case from people who might even be lawyers & would very much like you to prove this point.

  • David says:

    Slightly off topic: I am a BA Lifetime Gold and recently used my Avios for two Economy tickets from LHR to San Diego for my uncle and nephew, neither of whom is a member of the BA Exec Club. I dutifully paid the BA horrendous taxes and fees, but was surprised that, in order to reserve seats for them, and as I won’t be flying, I had to pay an extra £302 even though they were MY Avios being spent. So much for BA loyalty!