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