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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 another 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 was a hot topic before the pandemic, but went away for two years because – under the ‘Book With Confidence’ covid guarantee – BA was fully refunding what you paid, including seat selection fees. (The money was ring-fenced for paying future seat selection fees, but at least you got it back).

‘Book With Confidence’ is no longer offered on new bookings, so your seat reservation fees are back at risk.

BA seat reservation fees

What originally kicked off our campaign on this was a reader who cancelled two Avios seats in Club World to the US.  All of his Avios and other charges were 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?

Unfortunately, yes.

I just did a dummy booking for Heathrow to San Francisco next January.   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 Airbus A380 by the windows it will cost you £122 per person each-way – a total of £488 return.  Bargain.

This is dynamic pricing so the sum will go up nearer departure.

British Airways seat selection 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?

British Airways has made some improvements to its wording since we first started highlighting this issue. When you go into 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.  This is not ideal, but probably acceptable. 

Under the old version of, you were shown a summary of the T&C with a further click required to see the full version. Unsurprisingly, this ‘summary’ did not include the key point – that your fee was non-refundable in virtually all circumstances.

Things have now improved in terms of clarity. When you click the ‘Terms & Conditions’ hyperlink, you are taken immediately to the full T&C document. The bit on ‘no refunds’ isn’t at the top, but it is there if you scroll down.

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 difficult to see how retaining a payment of £500+ for seat selection is ‘fair’ when the airline can cancel the underlying seats without penalty and suffers no loss, especially if the seat is cancelled well before departure.

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.

Intriguingly, if British Airways 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.

In the case of an Avios redemption – or a fully flexible cash ticket – the airline is willing to refund the flight.  It is therefore difficult, 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?

If you are impacted by this, your options are to take 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).

The bad news is that I know that some readers have lost their case at CEDR when trying to do this. This is because the arbitrator is not empowered to look at whether BA’s actions break consumer laws. They only look at whether British Airways has broken its own terms and conditions – which it hasn’t.

Here is an actual quote from a failed arbitration claim

Here is a quote from a CEDR arbitration decision refusing to order BA to refund seat selection fees:

Whist I recognise the passenger deems this provision unfair, I am unable to make a determination as to whether the same is unfair, binding, acceptable, balanced or not to the detriment of the consumer. Should the passenger be unsatisfied with my ruling, he is free to reject the decision and and to negotiate a settlement with the airline or to pursue the matter elsewhere should he wish to do so, including to dispute the validity of the abovementioned provision (or the airline’s terms and conditions as a whole) before a competent body or court.

Even if you win at CEDR or MCOL, 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 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 (102)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • Nick says:

    “This is because the arbitrator is not empowered to look at whether BA’s actions break consumer laws. They only look at whether British Airways has broken its own terms and conditions…”

    Exactly! One of my family was an industry arbitrator in the commodity sector for many years. I used to discuss the role with him many times. I always remember him saying that the very first thing that they ask is “What, exactly, does the contract that you signed state”

  • Gordon says:

    I never pay for seats irrelevant of what cabin I am in. Me and my OH may have been lucky as have always sat together. I was Blue before I flew to sin 3 weeks ago and as the flight was on one booking for our 2-4-1 Companion voucher. we were allocated the window and aisle seats in CW 24 hours before departure luckily.The CW cabin was full….

    BA say they will do their best but can’t guarantee to seat you together. I achieved Bronze while I was in Indonesia so had the option of choosing the seats 7 days ahead of our return flight on 28/06 but we were allocated the middle and isle of the 3 middle seats left so again we did not have to choose. As for the BA club suite IMO there is no point in spending money to choose a seat on a 2-2-2 configuration unless you have an urge to be seated in a certain one….

    Shame BA12 A380-800 @ 23:15 is not operating from SIN to LHR until November 2022 as we have the BA16 777-300ER @ 22:35 with the old CW configuration 😏

  • Thywillbedone says:

    Has anyone challenged mortgage lenders (ie the disproportionate size of early redemption penalties) under this consumer protection legislation? Seems incredible how they get away with it in this country vs other jurisdictions.

    • qrfan says:

      If there were no/low early repayment fees on fixed rate mortgages then they would essentially become free/cheap options on the offered interest rates rather than an actual commitment to pay a rate for x years. The ERP represents the reinvestment risk and (I’m guessing) the cost of unwinding the fixed/float interest rate hedge. Not sure what your argument would be tbh. You’re searching for a very asymmetric arrangement.

    • aseftel says:

      This is explicitly what Mortgage providers are supposed to do. See MCOB 12.3.

      I have no idea whether anyone has had success in doing so, but if you think that the charges on your mortgage are unreasonable, I don’t see why you couldn’t complain as you would for any other proported regulatory breach.

    • Andrew. says:

      You can usually port your home loan from one property to another, and repay 10% of borrowings without penalty per annum.

      There’s the risk free option of SVR which generally comes with zero redemption charges.

    • Track says:

      You can probably challenge it and win for your specific contract. Very unlikely the courts would take upon themselves to create a legal precedent in this area — whey defer to the need for regs from FCA and primary/secondary legislation to adjudicate upon.

      Of course nether FCA nor the legislators will provide these regulations in such specific form.

  • Gerry Howe says:

    The very reason I choose NOT to fly BA these days. It’s a rip off. After paying a XW premium price to then have to pay another huge amount to select your seats together equals a lack of respect to their own customers in my opinion.
    Am I right in thinking that BA alone charges for seat selection? I can’t recall paying seat selection fees elsewhere.

    • dougzz99 says:

      But this allows status members to select the better seats, which shows respect for their more regular customers.

    • Harry T says:

      This is a divisive issue, but ultimately this is based on the BA principle of prioritising their most loyal and therefore valuable customers. If someone who is BA blue has to pay a high fee to book their preferred seat, but someone with Gold status can book a flight last minute and still get one of the best seats in the cabin, that is more likely to inspire continued loyalty from the person who flies the most with BA and likely gives them more money.

    • John says:

      Sometimes BA + seat selection is cheaper than other airlines with free seat selection. I probably still wouldn’t pay for it though.

  • Stu p says:

    I often wonder why the “carrier imposed fees” have not been challenged under consumer law. E.G. economy flight to JFK is £418. Fare is £18 and carrier charge is £200. Any legally trained people want to explain….or join me for the good fight?!!

  • IanT says:

    Slightly OT, but I’ve a query regarding BA cancellations. We have a very cheap one-way cash booking to Lisbon that was made before June 7th but for travel after September 30th, so outside of the Book With Confidence dates.

    Is there any way of cancelling this booking for a return of taxes? Manage My Booking simply initiates the voucher application (for which I’ve applied and been refused, obviously) and if I call I am charged a ‘channel fee’ (which I’d never heard of before) of £30 per person which renders the whole cancellation worthless.

    We’re stuck with stuck with a flight we no longer need and seemingly have no way of recouping the taxes.

    Any thoughts please?

    • AJA says:

      Legally you are entitled to a refund if APD as that is only payable by the airline if you actually depart the UK. However BA is entitled to charge an admin fee in processing the refund. The admin fee may be more than the departure tax.

      You could try submitting a request via the complaints form on the BA website after the flight has departed when you will have been put as a no show.

      • Lady London says:

        Ryanair does that too. The admin fee miraculously extinguishes the govt taxes you are entitled to get back if you don’t fly.

        It should be illegal as it’s a deliberate arrangement to

        • Lady London says:

          …deny the return of tax for a service not consumed.

          Just as collection and payment of govt taxes is a non-cost-recoverable requirement of doing business, so should thr return of any govt taxes paid in advance for a service which is not consumed.

          I’m pretty sure a decent legal challenge would get these practices banned of British Airways, Ryanair et al

    • Thegasman says:

      The only bit you are entitled to get refunded are the genuine taxes & charges ie. APD & Heathrow’s passenger service charge. The airlines are allowed to charge a reasonable admin fee which for shorthaul economy will almost always outweigh the refund due.

      BA’s surcharges (that can amount to >£600 on a long haul J/F booking) are exempt from requirements to refund.

      • IanT says:

        Thank you both. 🙂

        • Neil says:

          Or just wait and see closer to the departure date if BA make any significant changes to the booking then you may be able to cancel and get a full refund.

    • ChrisC says:

      Given the number of flight cancellations and schedule changes I’d hang on until closer to the departure date or see if either of those occur,

      If it’s cancelled you can have a full refund and the same if the schedule change is long enough (I think it’s 2 hours)

  • MadeUpName says:

    BA suffers a loss because for the period of time that you have the seat reserved it can’t charge anyone else for reserving it.

    • Rob says:

      …. but BA also can’t resell your place on the plane because your seat is currently booked – but you can cancel it for £35 penalty.

      • MadeUpName says:

        But it will have adjusted the price of the remaining seats to reflect the relative scarcity of seats (potentially significantly). I doubt there is much scope to increase the already high seat reservation costs!

        • Tom says:

          So then why isn’t the amount you are refunded for the seat proportional to the amount of time you held the seat for / how long is left before the flight to resell a reservation? This is a somewhat spurious argument, made worse by the fact BA only sells seat reservations on a minority of seats in the first place.

  • CarpalTravel says:

    The most grossly unfair of BA charges, in my eyes. Literally money for nothing as they suffer no additional cost in you selecting and even then, you can still find yourself being moved.

    The fact that they won’t refund the cost with a changed booking though feels like a corporate level mugging, T&C’s or not. It’s like they are going out of their way to find ways to provide a Ryanair type experience. Thank you for introducing Club Suite.

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