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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  1. OT – does anyone know when the next Hilton points sale will likely be? I just missed the 100% bonus in October and have read that this is a frequently offered discount but can’t find when it’s been offered in the past.

  2. Clive Watts says:

    With regard to refunding seat reservation fees, there is a secondary issue here with regard to what happens if you change a reservation (rather than cancel outright). I recently changed the outbound date on a couple of Club World seats to Johannesburg. I paid the expected change fee and expected to be able to select new seats on the website as I had already paid for them on the original booking. I called in to BA because the was asking me to pay the full cost of the new seat reservations. I was initially told that I had to pay again in full, which seemed unreasonable. I pushed on this and they agreed eventually that I could pay the difference – that’s fair. Staff did not seem to be able to find a way to charge me this difference, so we agreed that I would pay again in full and be refunded for the original reservation. You can predict what happened next. The new few was charged to my card immediately and I had to go through 2 months of conversation with Customer Service to get my original fee back.
    Perhaps changing a seat reservation is more common that cancelling. BA needs to get their act together as to how this process should work in a fair and reasonable way.

  3. It’s a bit baffling to me that you would work up enough Avios for a reward flight and then spend £500 on seat reservations!

    • There’s only one scenario where I do this. Having decided it’s not worth doing the return leg from an expensive destination in CW, I sometimes book Y seats on that sector (still saving about £300 pp on cash prices), then pay the £60 odd for exit row seats. Having flown this route in WT, WTP and CW (and paid the cash prices!) I am convinced that this option offers us the best value.

    • I’ve recently spent the best part of £300 to ensure that my fiance and I sit together on our CW redemptions for our honeymoon. A total and utter racket after working up to a redemption if you ask me. Really leaves a sour taste in the mouth. I appreciate that in all likelihood we’d probably have been able to choose seats together at T-7 (I’m bronze), but it isn’t something you really want to take a chance with on your honeymoon.

  4. High Seat selection fees in CW make a strong case for avios redemptions in first if available
    (We had a return to St Lucia in first downgraded to CW this year and BA still let us select our CW seats for free – but took several HUCA to get the avios difference refunded)

    • Shoestring says:

      You were probably entitled to 75% of your fare back in £s – involuntary downgrade – EC261 – with the cost of your flight being worked out as 1.6p/ Avios

      I’m estimating that would be worth several £thousands (‘we’ ‘First’ ‘St Lucia’)

      but glad you’re happy about getting your Avios difference refunded

      • You should run a Downgrade/Cancellation Consultation clinic, I’d be happy to cash in on a downgrade!

      • Shoestring says:

        2 pax = 400000 Avios + £ 1,071.36 return

        you have to deduct the taxes, not sure if it’s just APD but let’s deduct the £536

        (1 leg) 75% of 200000 = 150000

        150000 x 1.6p = £2400 compo due

        how many Avios did they give you?

        btw not having a laugh at your expense, you’re fully entitled to go back and claim your EC261 compo as long as by accepting the Avios ‘difference’ you didn’t sign away your compo rights (not even sure you *can* sign them away for reduced compo)

        the Avios reward flight is treated as equal to cash ticket and EC261 compo is paid as such (in cash)

        • If you paid for the flight with avios then that’s what you get reimbursed.

          You can’t ask for the cash value of those avios, Well you can but you’ll be told ‘no’.

          Proper Governement taxes and airport fees are excluded from the calculation of reimbursement of cash elements save if there is a difference between them in different cabin – so if you were downgraded to economy you’d get the difference between standard and reduced rate APD if that was the sector downgrades,

          Carrier surcharges is still a grey area.

          • Shoestring says:

            100% incorrect – there’s a clear EC261 compo entitlement with involuntary downgrades or any other situation where EC261 is payable (cash compo)

          • Surcharges is not a gray area.

            Consider the situation where you purchased the avios to redeem for a specific flight and it was downgraded – compensation should clearly be in the form of money at the rate those avios were purchased.

            If it is a pure redemption and the avios were all earned from flying, then it would be more fair to be compensated in avios.

          • I have had CW 241 redemption downgraded.
            I received 75 percent of the Avios for one ticket plus the cash equivalent of 75 percent of the Avios for the second ticket.

            I was told the only way to avoid being downgraded in the future is by paying for a seat reservation.

          • guesswho2000 says:

            Paying for a seat reso won’t necessarily save you from an involuntary downgrade!

      • Lady London says:

        And 3 years to claim it… But thé sooner thé better. Look up Bott & Co or similarité who will do it all for you for a % of something very large.

        • It’s 6 years for claims.

          But the claims handlers won’t pick up claims involving avios tickets because there is no money in it for them.

          Because you get reimbursed (the language used in EU261) in the way you paid for it and in this case the flight was paid for with avios

          • Shoestring says:

            Article 7 applies to all compo: 3. The compensation referred to in paragraph 1 shall be paid in cash, by electronic bank transfer, bank orders or bank cheques or, with the signed agreement of the passenger, in travel vouchers and/or other services.

          • Shoestring says:

            Upgrading and downgrading
            1. If an operating air carrier places a passenger in a class higher than that for which the ticket was purchased, it may not request any supplementary payment.
            2. If an operating air carrier places a passenger in a class lower than that for which the ticket was purchased, it shall within seven days, by the means provided for in Article 7(3), reimburse
            (a) 30 % of the price of the ticket for all flights of 1500 kilometres or less, or
            (b) 50 % of the price of the ticket for all intra-Community flights of more than 1500 kilometres, except flights between the European territory of the Member States and the French overseas departments, and for all other flights between 1500 and 3500 kilometres, or
            (c) 75 % of the price of the ticket for all flights not falling under (a) or (b), including flights between the European territory of the Member States and the French overseas departments.

          • Lady London says:

            Nope. Sée Rob’s comment of about one week ago when hé told US apparently BA has given up on picking those travelling on Avios 2-4-1 tickets because so many people have used BA and been awarded 75% of thé cash value of their tickets, calculated at 1.6p per Avios, as compensation for downgrade from F to J.

            I dont mean to be rude but Shoestring is trying to help you and paying a bit of attention to what’s recently said in comments would have also given you clarity.

          • Sorry, I’m with ChrisC: for a downgrade you get the avios back. Reimbursement is not compensation. Art7(1) specifically covers Art7(1) which is canx/delay compensation, not Art10 reimbursement.

            However if BA deny you reimbursement, you can put a value on MCOL claim and do this at 1.6p/avios.

          • Shoestring says:

            @pauldb – see my 14:12 – specifically ‘If an operating air carrier places a passenger in a class lower than that for which the ticket was purchased, it shall within seven days, by the means provided for in Article 7(3), reimburse’ etc

            Article 7(3) applies – cash compo – no question about it – and if you want empirical evidence, that’s what people on FT have already received when they force the point past a stubborn but wrong-in-law BA – Avios valued @1.6p, easy to work out the cash compo

            doesn’t really matter if anyone thinks it’s ‘fair’ to only get some Avios back on a an involuntary downgrade etc – the law is there to be used if you want more than some points back/ what you are entitled to

          • OK fair point on the linkage, but I still don’t think BA can be compelled by EU261 to pay you cash. In the cases we’ve seen they denied any form of 75% reimbursement and but then paid out on a claim at 1.6p/avios (either settling or by court order?). However, I don’t think we have a case where they’ve offered to reimburse the 75% avios and then been successfully sued for 1.6p instead; I really doubt you’d win that case – i.e. that it’s genuinely your choice.

          • Shoestring says:

            I think they’re not offering to reimburse 75% of Avios, though – just the Avios difference between fare class.

            I’d still fight to get the £££s but you make a decent point

          • Shoestring please get it right

            There is no compensation for downgrades.

            The regulation is clearly worded and states ‘reimbursement’.

            The regulation also mentions ‘price’and that can be cash or avios or anything else BA will take off you in payment.

            pay in cash and you get the reimbursement in cash

            pay in avios you get the reibursement in avios (and cash if any cash element is reimbursable) because that was the price of the ticket

          • Shoestring says:

            Article 7 applies to all compo: 3. The compensation referred to in paragraph 1 shall be paid in cash, by electronic bank transfer, bank orders or bank cheques or, with the signed agreement of the passenger, in travel vouchers and/or other services.

            Article 10
            Upgrading and downgrading
            1. If an operating air carrier places a passenger in a class higher than that for which the ticket was purchased, it may not request any supplementary payment.
            2. If an operating air carrier places a passenger in a class lower than that for which the ticket was purchased, it shall within seven days, by the means provided for in *Article 7(3)*, reimburse etc

  5. I even failed to get a refund when I upgraded from CW to F on a Jo’burg return ticket two years ago! ( I still don’t know why I didn’t tell them to stuff the whole flight!)
    Perhaps less shockingly I booked CW seats back on January for a flight to Antigua this month only to find (entirely accidentally) they had been changed to completely different and separate parts of the cabin! No notification from BA – of course. So I went on line to change to two seats together only to find there was an additional fee to pay. My phone call to BA was somewhat “firm” but it was only after berating a supervisor that the additional fee ( only £28) was waived as a “ gesture of goodwill “. BA wouldn’t know goodwill if it bit them on the rear!
    Virgin will have my business where possible in future – and no booking fees in Upper!

  6. I do enjoy reading all the BA directed anger. I do however wonder why people bother. Don’t like them, fly someone else. Problem sorted.

  7. ConfusedOfGlos says:

    Sorry, but this is a totally OT question. Executive Club expiry/renewal is coming up and it looks like I’ll be 55 TPs short of Silver. I only really have one set of dates I can travel (out on next Friday (!?!) and then back on a Saturday) to get the balance. Is there an online tool that can find the options lowest cost flights (I’m going for any UK / Europe business rtn) other than endlessly playing around with cheap flight finer (that seems to hide certain destinations depending on length of trip / cabin selected even if available?)

    • Shoestring says:

      check out some of these routes for current prices
      Barcelona from £202
      Bologna from £194
      Bordeaux from £144
      Cologne from £148
      Geneva from £186
      Gothenburg from £196
      Helsinki from £210 return (this gets you 160 tier points)
      Milan from £158
      Naples from £172
      Palma from £164
      Pisa from £192
      Porto from £174
      Rome from £158
      Salzburg from £190
      Sofia from £210 (160 tier points)
      Tirana from £210 (160 tier points)
      Venice from £150
      Vienna from £158

      • ConfusedOfGlos says:

        thank you!

        • Use cheap fare finder on the app not website. Venice for £158 22/11 back on 23/11 in CE looks cheapest option.

          • Lady London says:

            PS if you do just one way in C as i suggest then picking a flight that goes out of T3 would enable a reasonable lounge crawl as well – better than T5.

          • Shoestring says:

            yep with the T3 lounge crawl it’s worth arriving 3 or 4 hours before your flight 🙂

            as LL says, no point getting more tier points than you need at year end, so 1. outward Club, 2. return flight Economy, 3. T3 is your terminal of choice for the lounge crawl (American, BA, Cathay, Qantas)

      • Also go to Google flights, select British Airways, choose London (all) as departure point and enter ‘Europe’ as destination then specify dates. It then throws up a map of all BA flights and costs from UK to Europe on your dates.

      • Lady London says:

        Lots of these fares would probably allow you to fly Club one way and Y the other to lower the cost. It looks like you only need 1 leg in Club on a lot of them to get the tier points you need.

        Tier points reset each year so not much point earning excess at this stage! If the system wont do it you can call and get the phone fee waived.

      • guesswho2000 says:

        HEL for £210 return in J is a steal, I’d be all over that.

  8. Hi
    thanks for all the tips on EU261. I should have made it clearer, what actually happened was BA cancelled the flight a month or 2 beforehand. Then replaced it with the same flight times and flight number (but no First cabin). So didn’t think I was entitled to EU261 as I would have been had they downgraded us at the time of boarding, say?

    • Shoestring says:

      You were in the (rotten) situation of basically either accepting the downgrade – which makes it a voluntary downgrade – or saying no thanks, I insist on flying First – in which case you’d have been stuck on St Lucia for a lot longer!

      With a voluntary downgrade, no EC261 compo is payable and sure, the best you can hope for is the Avios fare difference plus maybe another Avios gesture from CS if you complain.

      • Lady London says:

        Shoestring wouldnt this have been a reroute situation? Basically no compo payable due to more than two weeks notice. However the right to request a suitable reroute in same class.

        The key word being that the flight came back with the same flight number. This indicates that BA did this just to either remove First Class from the flight or to remove the passenger from First Class.

        In this situation i would insist on a reroute on an aircraft in First Class and claim duty of care ( extra night(s) in hôtel, meals, transport to hôtel, comms) until thé time of thé replacement flight. It’s thé ‘comparable conditions’ wording in EU261 that allows this and it’s thé passengers choice, not thé Airlines, as to whether to insist on a reroute or take a refund.

        • Shoestring says:

          bit tricky from St Lucia! there’s also a requirement to be reasonable, eg with the September BA strike and cancellations, a smart student could have tried to fix their new flight 2 weeks later and get BA to pay for a nice 14 day holiday in a £200/ night 4* hotel with lots of room service 🙂 – no chance BA would have allowed that under duty of care

          airlines *are* allowed to change aircraft/ remove First as a fare class on a particular flight & their T&Cs will reflect that. I saw that St Lucia is still offering First for 2020, though – so no idea if LeeCB could have waited a couple of days and got a flight (on BA) in First or if work permitted that even – but in that scenario, 2 days of duty of care would possibly have been claimable

          ie if (as it seems to me) BA offered Business class on the same flight (instead of First), and customer refused it or another BA flight within a reasonably short time, they’d probably find BA wouldn’t re-ticket them on another airline (as they’d offered a reasonable alternative) and if they tried to force the issue by re-ticketing themselves in First/ Any class on ANOther Airline and trying to claim it back from BA, I can’t see them winning

          • Lady London says:

            My comment was based on there being probably another BA flight with First in next 2-3 days. First to St Lucia is booked for ‘special’ reasons like weddings and romance quite often so it does matter to get the class you booked for a lot of people from UK to Caribbean destinations. I don’t think its unreasonable at all to insist on First even in 1-2-3 days. If longer than that then to keep First I’d ask for a routing to another BA flight from another island in First. First matters more in Caribbean routings.

            Remember also that removing First from that plane, or the passenger from First (which this far ahead would be presented as a cancellation) was done by BA for their own profit or at least their own convenience, and with BA being fully aware of the options available to passengers including EU261. So if EU261 gives an option I would have no hesitation in using it.

  9. OT – for somebody that has never had an amex card, what is the best sign up order to maximize sign up bonuses please?

  10. Jonathan says:

    Any word on how Virgin Atlantic treats it’s customers in these circumstances?

    I doubt they’re this bad, and one reason is to why with my next two flights to the United States, I went straight to Virgin’s booking site, without considering BA!

  11. 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?

    • 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.

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