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BA forced by the courts to refund £5,000 of non-refundable tickets – unreasonably?

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I am generally very pro Which? magazine, although in my mind I tend to think of it as peaking in importance in the 1980s and becoming less relevant and less ‘part of the conversation’ as the years moved on. I may be wrong, and I do believe that there is a need for a totally unbiased consumer publication.

In the last few days, Which? has been getting media coverage for the help it gave a reader in securing a £5,000 flight refund from British Airways. The story is here.

Which? magazine and British Airways refund

Let me simplify the story for you. Remember that this all took place in 2019, pre covid.

  • man buys two £2,500 non-refundable, non-changeable business class flights to Hawaii
  • man tries to change his flight and is told to take a hike
  • man gets Which? to sue BA on his behalf
  • Court tells BA to refund his £5,000

British Airways seems to have been badly treated here

In general, the airline world works like this:

  • fully flexible business class passengers subsidise leisure passengers
  • putting restrictions on cheap tickets is actually beneficial for leisure passengers, because otherwise such tickets couldn’t be so cheap – airlines can’t take the risk of business passengers being able to trade down

When you buy something, certain ‘norms’ are implicitly accepted in the contract. You can’t walk out of Waitrose with your food and pop back later to pay the bill. If you are arrested after walking out of Waitrose with unpaid-for food, you cannot give as your excuse the fact that ‘there are no signs up saying that I can’t pop back and pay later’.

Is it now implicitly understood that the purchase of a flight ticket is non-refundable and non-changeable? I would say that, yes, it is. Customers have been trained by 20 years of low cost carriers to understand that your sale is ‘final’ unless you are told otherwise.

The reason that BA lost the case, however, was that the judge did not believe that the non-refundable, non-changeable rules were highlighted prominently.

I accept that this case has two caveats:

  • they were business class tickets, and potentially the public may mistakenly believe that business class tickets have flexibility built-in which economy tickets do not, and
  • there were £2,500 tickets, and potentially the public may mistakenly believe that a £2,500 flight ticket would have flexibility built-in – although regular business travellers would know that a fully flexible ticket would cost nearer £5,000 than £2,500

Neither of these are given as reasons for the courts decision, however. It is purely down to the lack of prominence given to the change and refund rules.

This make a mockery of another recent BA case …..

We recently covered the story of a HfP reader who took BA to arbitration to get his seat reservation fees refunded.

He had cancelled his flight due to covid restrictions and expected to be refunded for over £400 of Club World seat reservation fees. BA refused and the arbitrator found in favour of the airline, even though the seats had never been occupied.

This is despite the fact that:

  • the small print re non-refundability of seat reservation fees is really hidden away – far more so than the rules on ‘no refunds’ on ticket sales
  • I believe that ‘Mr Average’ would expect that his seat reservation fees would be refundable if he cancelled his flight and that if they were not then it should be made very clear

My personal belief is that BA’s actions here may even breach the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977.

However, the reader lost his £400.

Conclusion

Whilst there may be extenuating circumstances in play (the fact that the tickets were in business class and cost £2,500 each), it was odd in 2020 to have a court decide that a flight ticket should, by default, be refundable and changeable unless significant and obvious warnings are given to the purchaser before they click ‘Buy’.

I am guessing that this was a Small Claims Court case and that the judgement will therefore not be binding on future cases.

You can read the full Which? article here.


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Comments (125)

  • Kevin D says:

    BA do a terrible job of advising on the fare conditions during the online booking process. Compare with Aer Lingus, who do it very well! Go to book business class with Are Lingus – its there in black and white, each fare condition, cost to cancel, change etc. right beside the “Select” button. No need to scroll down, no need to click a hyperlink. And they contrast it with the differences between a standard ticket and a “Flex” ticket right beside it on the same page. Go make a dummy booking and see for yourself. Well done EI! Perhaps someone could nip across the IAG office floor and tell BA how to do it!

    • Memesweeper says:

      An not just EI — loads of airlines do this. It’s a chance to upsell for Pete’s sake!

  • Doug M says:

    When I do a booking on ba.com after the dates and as soon as I click on the class of travel there’s an option to turn on flexible booking, so reasonable to assume if I don’t the ticket has no flexibility.
    Spending £5K without understand what you’re getting is dumb.

  • Zebrum says:

    BA is a global business and globally flights are refundable as standard. It’s only in the money grabbing UK that flights, trains etc are non-refunable. And that causes so many problems that they were forced to allow refunds within 24 hours of booking, they really should have been forced to allow refunds regardless of time since booking. Of course then they’d scam us with refund admin fees etc.

    • Doug M says:

      So you can book loads of flights for ‘maybe’ ? Then cancel for full refund at any point, and block tickets that could otherwise be sold? Can you not see what a complete nonsense this would for an airline. If you look at what refundable flights cost then flights sold on that basis would make flying unaffordable for almost all of us.

    • Callum says:

      Are they? I’ve bought flights in many different countries and can’t say I noticed any of them as being “refundable as standard”. I don’t believe that’s true at all.

  • billy bob says:

    on southwest you can cancel up to 10mins before departure and get full refund
    “***Failure to cancel a reservation at least 10 minutes prior to scheduled departure may result in forfeited travel funds.”
    https://www.southwest.com/airfare-types-benefits/?clk=GFOOTER-PRODUCTS-FAREBENEFITS

    • Doug M says:

      On BA you can not bother turning up at all and still get your money back. Just buy the right ticket.

  • Nicky says:

    What do you think of this one…..booked 2 Advanced Purchase tickets on Crystal River Cruises for May. Was fully aware that if I cancelled that I would lose my money. Fair enough. In February THEY cancelled my trip and said I could not have a refund because it was an Advanced Purchase ticket, I was only entitled to deferring to next year….REALLY….they cancel and keep my money??? I don’t think so. Nothing in T & C’s to say if they cancel they can keep my money so my Travel Agents are fighting this to get my refund. Me thinks they need to redraft their T and C’s or else we could all set up a company, cancel and keep the money

    • Blindman says:

      Shame you did not book direct-you could initiate S75 otherwise.

      • kitten says:

        shame that law does not protect people wbo book through travel agents apparently at present

    • Dave says:

      I would contact card company and initiate a chargeback

      • Nicky says:

        My Travel Agent has said they will refund in full if Crystal stick to the hard line but it’s not really fair that they should have to…but then a s75 would be against the TA anyway, but at least they are being jolly decent about it (and I have it in writing that they will refund if Crystal do not). Personally I think it is disgraceful behaviour by Crystal – seeing as they were the ones to cancel – not me

    • Phil says:

      Secret Escapes tried this on with me, making some nonsensical point that it wasn’t their fault I couldn’t get to the hotel (the hotel had been closed for two months and remained closed for months). However, much I explained the basics of their legal requirement to provide the service or refund me they refused to accept it. Raised a S75 with Creation (IHG Premium Card) and they sorted it in 2 weeks.

    • kitten says:

      I would perhaps fight this one myself. chargeback on card or chargeback/s.75 if credit card as DougM says.

      I would not wait for travel agents to have success or not – or to pass me the money if they get it which they won’t.

      Time limits to start s.75 or chargeback are quite short so please tell us tomorrow you phoned your card. Otherwise you maybe facing past time limit and 1 or 2 counterparties who may become impossible to recover from

  • Chris Heyes says:

    Rob & HFPs I have been booking Hotels for the past 50 odd years I always book non-refundable as it’s cheapest, even during and pre-Covid, admittedly you can count the number I’ve had to cancel on two hands in all those years.
    When I’ve had to cancel I Ask if they can alter my booking to a later date
    6/8 of them just say of course, whereas a couple have actually just refunded me in full
    I always explain the reason i have to cancel, but never been refused
    (i have never booked a refundable room apt in my life)
    Maybe just lucky or gift of the gab, we are talking Hilton. Sofitel chains you wouldn’t expect to be flexible plus the apt Suite in Sorrento we now visit twice a year
    simply because we booked it a few years ago and when we needed to cancel Pamelia just said “do you want me to rebook or refund” we have been going back ever since
    We are going back to the Bolderardo in Boulder because refunded none refundable rate within a week last year
    I do think more expensive Hotels/Apts are more flexible if you talk to the Manager direct (instead of the Group) a polite e-mail and follow up phone call works wonders
    Regards Trains When it was Virgin i always booked Advance 1st class (3 months in advance of journey) Blackburn to Bognor Regis £34 each single with Disabled Railcard
    Arrived earlier (at Preston) asked to speak to Train Manager (Guard really)
    off the train that happened to be in, asked nicely that we was early and would it be possible to catch his train, never refused (always called him Train Manager never Guard)
    Totally different Blackburn via Manchester, Manchester always said “NO”
    Didn’t bother us after all that was the ticket we had
    But always tried to book via Preston

    • Phil says:

      Generally I’m the same, if you contact a hotel with a genuine reason for cancellation and you do so relatively quickly after that reason occurs… I’ve never had a hotel not allow a rebooking for a later date.

      I still do book flexible rates sometimes – for work or if I am genuinely keeping my options open and chopping/changing would be taking the p1ss on a non-refundable rate but otherwise, non-refundable hotel rates have been good to me. With the exception of my Secret Escapes experience that I mention in an earlier comment.

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