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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 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.  This is not ideal, but probably acceptable. 

Under the old version of ba.com, 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)

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  • Steve R says:

    Perhaps the CAA will get round to enforcing this one day

    It is the CAA’s view that young children or those with disabilities should be sat with those accompanying them wherever possible.

    It is safety issue, not nose in the trough

    • Richie says:

      Remind yourself where the CAA gets it funding from.

    • dougzz99 says:

      Which BA do for free, for those groups, so not sure what your point is. In truth on long haul anyone that really feels the need to be properly next to a child or a disabled person shouldn’t be at the front of the plane as these seats don’t work like that.

      • CamFlyer says:

        I had two flights in March in CE, as EC Silver, where BA seated our 2 year old separately from her parents. BA claim they acted in accordance with CAA requirements—because we Refused to leave the check in desk until they seated her with us. So BA have no trouble departing children from parents.

      • Rui N. says:

        You can only allocate seats for free if the child is under 2. After that you can have children separated.
        And with under 2 they have no qualms of changing your pre-selected seats when time for check in comes (and I’m sure if the enfant was not on the lap of an adult they would get separated as well)

        • Kris says:

          My children, (older than 2) are both autistic. Should BA separate them from us, the fallout will be apoplectic at the very least! We’ll be back as a family within 5 minutes.

  • Wally1976 says:

    Moral of the story, never pay to reserve seats with BA!

    • Gordon says:

      I concur

    • Bluekjp says:

      Or any airline! Seats are non-refundable across the whole spectrum of airlines so no need to keep quoting BA as if they were the only ones. What riles me is the charging of seats on premium customers. You can pay £4k+ for a ticket and still be asked to pay £100+ for seat numbers. This is the main difference between BA and most other airlines e.g. VS, AA who do not charge high-spending clients.

      • Gordon says:

        “This is the main difference between BA and most other airlines VS, AA who do not charge high-spending clients.”

        Who’s singling BA out now?
        Exactly your being asked, Not forced….

        As Wally 1976 says….”Moral of the story, never pay to reserve seats with BA!”

        • Eli says:

          What it means is that even if you’re a top-dollar paying customer, you’re still being nickled and dimed. Hardly the luxurious experience one hopes to get by purchasing business.

          • Gordon says:

            I know, As I said on page 1 That’s why I don’t pay to choose to pay for my seats. But I also don’t gripe about it. If people don’t like it They should vote with their feet. There’s plenty of airlines within the one world group now.

          • dougzz99 says:

            Top dollar paying. If you book full fare J tickets there are no seat selection fees. The fees are on the discounted tickets.

      • aseftel says:

        BA don’t charge their high-spending clients. A lot of their corporate deals come with free seat selection. Plus of course elites get free seat selection.

  • Jeffrey Silvers says:

    Doesn’t Section 75 of the CCA come into play? After all you haven’t received a service you have paid for. Has anyone asked their credit card company for a refund?

    • Damian says:

      Only if B.A moved you from the allocated seats you had paid for to elsewhere. Not if you voluntarily cancel your flight.

    • aseftel says:

      I think you’d actually be better off arguing misrepresentation on a s75 claim.

      • JDB says:

        ‘Misrepresentation’ is very narrowly defined for s75 claims and could not be applied here. The idea of making a s75 for this was anyway a bit absurd. Some think that s75 is the answer to everything but while it is a very powerful tool, its scope (which is different to chargeback) is actually quite limited and has strange limitations like not usually applying to additional/supplementary unless they are buying something for the exclusive benefit of the main cardholder.

  • Mark says:

    Can anyone give me a good reason to want to fly with BA?

    • Rob says:

      My enthusiasm for flying to Mauritius last month on Emirates via Dubai with odd flight times was not high enough to keep me away from old-style Club World, with overnight, perfectly timed, flights in both directions.

      Get yourself a Gold card and you’d be impressed. Get your taxi to drop you outside the First Wing entrance in Terminal 5, be in the lounge within 5 minutes if you’re not checking bags, acceptable Galleries First lounge then usually a modest walk to your European short haul flight. It is actually quite civilised.

      • Perkypat says:

        Air France?

        • Rob says:

          Given a choice of dragging my family to Paris or just pitching up at Gatwick, getting on the aircraft and going to sleep, I’ll take the latter.

          Similarly, because the kids were going straight into school after landing at 6.30am on the Monday, this was only possible with BA. Had we taken Air France we’d have needed to cut the holiday short by a day to get the kids into school on Monday.

          The BA flight was terrible by the way – old seat, shocking one tray meal that was basically identical to Club Europe – but only an idiot heads over to Paris with his wife and kids and cuts his holiday short by a day purely to avoid it.

      • dougzz99 says:

        I think I understand why I hate on BA less than most people that comment.

        • swifty says:

          My biz short haul was cancelled by ba last week at v short notice and I went by tui charter instead. It was shit. I had to pay for all the drinks, and some food, and we were in row 14 and they’d run out of everything by that point except vegan sausage rolls. They’d even run out of soggy chips for £3.60 by that point. We sat on the hard standing for 1 hour 10 mins with screaming kids and yeah, I’d have given my granny up for my old club Europe seat if you’d have asked me then….I still love BA – the staff are great. On the return it was another tui charter which had no planning on embarkation, with terse stewardship and left the cabin lights full on till 11.30pm until I asked for them to be dimmed. They were still asking us if we wanted to buy some duty free at that hour. Was an old 767 300 plane in a 2 4 2 config and the seats did recline nicely. Anyway, BA plane service
          = ✓ for me.

          • Duncan Orr says:

            Tui……what a benchmark for BA

          • Lady London says:

            So….I hope you claimed for cancellation and downgrade for each seat including child seats. Plus duty of care for each mealtime occurring during any extra wait time and during any later and/or longer flight time.

    • tony says:

      Only carrier on the route? You have a boat load of Avios you want to spend? Your employer.client has contracted rates with them?

      Must admit i’m actively avoiding them now – even moreso given the current state of affairs – which is a bit annoying when I just got my Silver card reinstated last month…

    • JDB says:

      You will find people in France, Germany and Italy asking the same question re their national airlines that all have an industrial relations/strike problem and now staffing issues. They still fly with those carriers as a great of us will continue to fly BA, not least for its route network.

    • JDB says:

      I think BA’s F product is a lot better than people give credit for and Club Europe is at least on a par with and I think generally better than most other European airlines. Club World however, is currently shocking, even with suites.

      • Rob says:

        I agree, but sadly we’re off a low base here. A European flight with SWISS, Air France or Lufthansa in Business will swiftly dispell you of the notion that BA is terrible in that department. Nothing more dispiriting than getting on an early morning SWISS flight to Zurich / Geneva, after hanging out in the soulless Lufthansa T2 lougne, and having a plate of cheese placed in front of you as your breakfast.

        BA also has the best business class long-haul seat of any European airline now. That doesn’t mean its necessarily global top 5, because its not, but when you’re best in Europe you can’t really moan that much. Grief, I mean Lufthansa and Air France still have ‘sloping to the floor’ ‘wedgie’ seats in Business Class on many aircraft which make old Club World look like a piece of genius.

        • Comrade Chag says:

          Lufthansa T2 > BA Galleries T5

          Galleries are a jungle.

        • marks7389 says:

          I don’t think Lufthansa still operate sloping seats anymore, though they did originally fit them on their A380s. They are pretty poor though, especially if seated next to someone else when travelling solo. Hopefully the new seats now being fitted to A350 deliveries will be a big improvement….

          Emirates on the other does still have sloping business class seats on 777s, so it’s not as though non-European airlines are necessarily better.

        • Track says:

          Lufthansa T2 lounge is very civilised compared to BA Galleries T5.

          Different type of areas, work area is usually free. Better choice of soft drinks, juices (BA Galleries are hmm ‘standardised’ with small soda cans). LH T2 lounge food is better even if DO&CO stepped out.

          Senator section was over-crowded (pre Covid) but food was way better than ‘a burger’ in Galleries First.

          • Rob says:

            The Lufty T2 lounge is the most tediously dull and uninspiring place you will ever visit. Not that other Lufty lounges are any better ….

  • Bagoly says:

    “In the case of an Avios redemption – … – the airline is willing to refund the flight.”

    I suspect that their mindset is that the refunding is “unreasonable” but can’t face the opprobrium of changing that term (or perhaps are constrained by OW contracts?) so see making the seat reservation fees not refundable as a way to discourage cancellations (and so the making of less-certain bookings)

  • Justin says:

    Are you 100% that you wouldn’t get a refund if the airline upgrades you? You can claim one of you pay to upgrade to a higher cabin.

    Recently had booked an emergency exit seat on a Stockholm flight for £32 then was given an upgrade offer for £75. Had to claim through the site, but had a full refund of the seat selection costs, and a very cheap CE upgrade in a CW seat (787).

    Refund was actually processed in 14 days after claiming it through I only found out from my credit card statement.

    • Rob says:

      It’s in the T&C very clearly.

    • Bagoly says:

      But that’s you upgrading yourself, rather than the airline upgrading you?
      If the airline upgrades one operationally, then the (in this case £32) seems a good deal for it.

  • Ironside says:

    “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.”

    There is one other issue with MCOL / County Court: the random quality of the judge.

    In an area unrelated to aviation, I claimed against a company because their T&Cs (which weren’t even highlighted with a tickbox) were manifestly unfair. It was a big enough claim to go to a full trial and the judge threw out all of the above Acts of Parliament saying “If an agreement is contractual then it cannot be unfair.”

    At this point, arm-chair commentards will say that my case was just weak or my lawyer inept. Wrong. There were six other claimants that I knew about in separate cases for the same incident and they all won.

    Bottom line: factor in the possibility that your judge’s knowledge of law is sadly lacking.

    “Judgeitus, like piles, is an occupational hazard on the bench.” -Rumpole

    • Richie says:

      “If an agreement is contractual then it cannot be unfair.” is utter twaddle, I’m shocked about that. Excellent point made Ironside.

      • JDB says:

        The unfortunate thing about the original quote which you have re-quoted is that it is clearly incomplete and would need to be read in its full context in order to make any valid comment

        • Richie says:

          Thanks, good point, I withdraw my comments.

          • Freddy says:

            As someone who works in the legal system this doesn’t surprise me at all. Even bullet proof cases can become unstuck infront of a district judge in a county court

        • Ironside says:

          As you wish:

          “With regard to the claimant’s position that the terms & conditions were unfair, I find nothing to support his argument. If an agreement is contractual then it cannot be unfair.”

          And that was it. The sum total of the majority of my case dismissed in two lazy sentences. It was preceded by a ruling on whether there was a contract between the parties (which wasn’t actually in dispute) and succeeded by comments on a separate issue.

          Incidentally, based on the above I requested permission in writing to appeal but the request was lost. Utter shambles.

  • JDB says:

    One of the tests for determining if not refunding the seating falls foul of unfair contract terms/penalty type charges is whether the term has a legitimate business purpose. In this case, one purpose is presumably to prevent people booking the best seats, then cancelling them at the last minute (or at 7 days) and then taking those seats they have blocked for free. There are probably some other reasons BA would cite and thus argue that it is for the good of all passengers.

    If it were established that there was a legitimate purpose then, per the Supreme Court in ParkingEye v Beavis, the court would need to establish whether the charge was “extravagant, exorbitant or unconscionable” which is high hurdle.

    It does seem very unfair in principle but in the phrase cited in the article above: “If you cancel the contract, the business is generally only entitled to keep or receive an amount sufficient to cover their actual losses” people often book fully non refundable hotel rooms or flights and those rooms or seats might subsequently be filled such that the provider makes no loss (and maybe an additional profit) but you still don’t get a refund.

    • Dubious says:

      Presumably there is a counter argument that if the airline practices over-selling of flights, then there is an expectation that not all seat reservations will be honoured by the airline (if all passenger choose to reserve them). It also means there remains a pool of customers that the airline could re-sell the seat reservation too.

      It is not as if the seat reservation blocks the seat all the way until the flight’s departure despite the original customer having cancelled their flight reservation.

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