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UK airlines warned by CAA and CMA over customer rights

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This may or may not be a coincidence, but just a few hours after British Airways attempted to stitch up passengers booked to Bangkok this Winter, the Civil Aviation Authority and Competition & Markets Authority issued a joint threat to UK airlines – respect the legal rights of your customers or else.

You can see the letter sent to the airlines yesterday by clicking here (gov.uk, PDF).

UK airlines warned by CAA and CMA over customer rights

The letter implies that many airlines are failing to meet their legal requirements when dealing with customers. To quote:

We are concerned that some airlines may not be doing everything they could to avoid engaging in one or more harmful practices, including:

  • selling more tickets for flights than they can reasonably expect to supply and failing to warn consumers about the ensuing risk of cancellation;
  • not always fully satisfying obligations to offer consumers re-routing (including with alternative carriers where necessary) in the event of cancellation; and/or
  • failing to give consumers sufficiently clear and upfront information about their rights on cancellation, and/or to provide adequate and appropriate support and care where flights are cancelled or disrupted.

Anyone who booked a British Airways flight to Bangkok for this Winter may be having a wry smile at this point.

British Airways Bangkok flight cancellations

What has happened with British Airways flights to Bangkok?

As we reported on 9th April, British Airways decided over three months ago that it would not operate flights to Bangkok during the Winter season which starts on 29th October.

All flights were removed from sale in early April. However, passengers who had booked on these services were not told that they were cancelled.

Our article on 9th April caused a lot of concern for people who had British Airways tickets booked to Bangkok. People who called BA were told that they could not be rebooked because their seats had not been officially cancelled.

I was prepared to give BA the benefit of the doubt here. We are talking about many thousands of customers needing to be rerouted, and it made sense to wait until the call centre was running efficiently.

This week, BA finally emailed people with a Bangkok flight booking for this Winter.

Passengers were told, effectively, that their flight was cancelled and that they qualified for a refund. There was no attempt to offer them a rerouting, despite their legal right to one.

Even worse, when passengers called British Airways, they were refused a rerouting on the grounds that British Airways did not have any commercial arrangements in place. When pushed, agents said that they thought something might appear in the next week or so.

British Airways Bangkok flight cancellations

What Head for Points readers had to say

Here are some examples from emails I received this week:

“Was on hold for an hour to be told only option is a refund. I assume they’re legally obliged to switch to another airline even tho it’s a way off?”

“BA finally emailed us tonight to cancel our flights to Bangkok in Feb 2023. We went into Manage Your Booking as they suggested and there were no flight alternatives. We phoned BA and after 1 hour of call queuing we finally got through to a lady who told us that there are no alternative flights (even though BA are selling the Qatar flights on their website) and our only option is a refund. We quoted article 8 of EU regulation 261/2004 but to no avail!!”

“My flight to Bangkok was just cancelled (jan-23). Called BA and they said they don’t have any agreements in place with other airlines to book me an alternative flight and I should call in few weeks. Are they just trying to get me get a refund? I insisted that EU reg says they need to book me on an alternative flight (not my problem if they have no agreements in place). The lady said she can’t do anything and terminated the call. Shall I call and insist I want an alternative flight regardless if they have agreements?”

“Just called against the Executive Club and they said no reward availability with Qatar / Finnair and try to call commercial team as they can only book Avios seats. Is that true? Being sent back and forth between British Airways call centres.”

Agent said he can’t help me and he can’t comment on what the EU law says about my rights. Looks like they have been advised not to reroute. Unbelievable! Is there somewhere where I can report this?”

This one arrived late on Thursday evening:

“Just got off the phone with BA on the American number. The agent said they’ve had a new directive today stating “under no circumstances can they change companion vouchers to other airlines for the cancelled BKK flights” so only option is a refund or look for other Avios availability in same zone (not that anywhere close is in the same zone). Surely Illegal?”

(For clarity, yes, this is against EC261 which clearly states: “This Regulation …. shall apply to passengers having tickets issued under a frequent flyer programme or other commercial programme by an air carrier or tour operator“)

Why this is not acceptable

Now …. if a route is cancelled at short notice you could excuse BA for not being able to put a rerouting deal together quickly. However:

  • British Airways has been rerouting Bangkok passengers for almost two years now – Rhys on our team was rerouted on Qatar Airways when he went to Bangkok earlier this year on a 2-4-1 Avios ticket
  • BA removed Winter 2022 flights from sale in April – it has had over three months to put alternative arrangements in place (and these arrangements were already in place anyway, as Rhys found in February)

As the CAA and CMA say in their letter:

When cancelling a flight, airlines must offer re-routing, either using their own flights or if they cannot offer a timely replacement with another carrier. We consider that professional diligence requires airlines to have in place reasonably appropriate organisation and support staff to source replacement flights and complete the booking if consumers wish to take up this offer.

Just because BA has not been able to agree a cheap deal with Qatar Airways or another carrier to take Bangkok passengers does not change its legal liability – it will simply have to pay more for those seats.

My best guess is that British Airways has been deliberately encouraging passengers to take a refund. It has had over three months to put rerouting deals in place so getting call centre agents to say ‘it may take us a week or so to sort something out’ simply doesn’t cut it.

I reckon, in a week or so when most passengers have taken a refund and rebooked by themselves for (presumably) a higher fare, British Airways will magically turn up with a rerouting deal for those people who are determined to push for their legal right.

(EDIT: In the last few hours there have been reports of successful rebooking on Qatar Airways.)

We are happy to pass on these reader emails to the CAA and CMA if they want to know more.

The CAA and CMA letter to the airlines is here.

Comments (311)

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

  • YB says:

    Have just called up to get our LHR to BKK flights rebooked. Was offered BA to Doha and then Qatar to BKK, but the outbound flight timing was half a day earlier than our evening flight (and from LGW), so no good for us. Declined the option and asked about the Heathrow flight options and times, which I can see for sale on Qatar’s website. CSA suggested calling back in a few days to see if their policy had been updated to allow other flights on Qatar.

  • Felix says:

    My Virgin Atlantic flight to HKG was also just cancelled after they extended their pause to March 2023. In their email they also said “At this time, we’re unable to rebook you on to an alternative service.” – does this mean I can contest this?

    • Rob says:

      Yes

    • The Streets says:

      Back earlier this year I was in Hong Kong and my return flight in Upper Class to London was cancelled by Virgin Atlantic within two weeks of the flight date. Not only did they refuse compensation they also would not book me on an alternative flight because I had bought two singles (London to Hong Kong and then Hong Kong to London) rather than a return. I then had to book an alternative flight with Emirates Business Class to get back to London (22 hours!). I was told had I booked a return flight then they would have helped. This surely cant be right and think I will rechallenge

      • Lady London says:

        Virgin being UK based means both your outward and returm came under EU UK 261. Virgin was talking b0ll0x

        • Lady London says:

          You have up to 6 years to claim off Virgin the cost of your alternative flights, any extra hotels needed due to waiting time for replacement flight or extra journey time and all extra meals needed. Best to claim sooner than later.

          You’ll have notes of date and time of calls to Virgin who you spoke to and what was said. If you feel what you’ve got could be rounded do a DSAR and get the data records and the call recording if possible.

          I would be very optimistic about your recovery of this amount if you follow that and then the process here for MCOL.

          I particularly had the impression last year on reports about Virgin doing this sort of thing,, that they know full well refusal is totally legally incorrect but that they.were playing for time by refusing in the hope of getting some cash in.

          For Virgin more.sympathy as that was about their survival. Whereas BA and IAG still have deep pockets and many different ways of raising money to get.them through still if they.need but are deliberately strategising illegal denial to customers so that shareholdes still get to eat corn.

        • Tom1 says:

          I don’t think this is correct.
          If I understand, only the return flight was cancelled? In which case Virgin are responsible for rebooking the return, but not the outgoing as it was on a separate ticket.

          • Lady London says:

            Virgin is a UK based airline and the return was to UK or Europe so it doesn”t matter where the return flight started it is subject to EU UK 261. Even if it’s a standalone ticket.

    • Adam says:

      Just called to discuss about my cancelled HKG to LHR leg with VS and was told that either take a refund, travel voucher or book later date after March but alternate carrier is not possible. AF & KLM have regular service from & HKG. The bloke was nice and said he has no knowledge on CMA letter and just repeating what was told by his manager. I will give it a week or 2 for VS to sort out plans for HKG route before pushing hard on them to meet their obligations under UK261/2004. These were flights booked for Jan as part of Christmas holidays to Asia.

      • Kamil says:

        Just a thought…if KLM/AF is not flying, I wonder if you can reroute the LONG way via US with Delta?

  • PJ says:

    November BKK flights cancelled 3 days ago. Got no where on BA chat. Just called the free phone BA number. Got through in 6 mins. Asked my options and was told she will accommodate on Qatar, I asked for the flights I wanted (change of departure from Heathrow to Gatwick which suits me better) and she said no issue. All done in 15 mins and confirmation email sent before the call ended….I’m strangely impressed/bemused..!!!

    • Pj says:

      My friend used a 241 to BKK for December and once I told her I had been rebooked she called straight away to be told no rebooking, call back Monday. I told her to hang up and try again. The contempt BA has for its customers is frankly disgraceful.

  • Robert says:

    I thought you could only use a 2-4-1 voucher on BA metal, or has this changed now?

    • Rob says:

      Correct but you can be rebooked on anyone.

      • Robert says:

        Thanks Rob, I wasn’t aware and thought it strange as I got re-booked onto JAL metal today. This is following operational changes to Far East flights, additional 2 hours in both directions. Quite a few people will have been re-booked today where they have connections to make.

  • Kai says:

    Happy to report that I’ve been rebooked onto Finnair. Qatar as an option was not presented to me.

    Best of luck to everyone trying to rebook!

  • Al says:

    I’m beginning to wonder whether Mr T was correct with the initialism for BA. “You ain’t gettin’ on no plane, fool!”.

  • James Harper says:

    My sister who lives in Bangkok has a signficant birthday at the end of this year. I’m just so glad we booked EVA – LHR-BKK-TPE is now fully reinstated if it helps anyone, there is no reason why you couldn’t ask to be booked on that and it is non-stop.

  • Tom1 says:

    I have just had my VS flight LHR-HKG cancelled for Christmas. Was booked as two singles using Virgin points.

    Haven’t yet tried to rebook – but when I do, should the new booking keep the same cancellation rights that I had with my original booking? (Ie £30 for cancelling up until 1 day before the flight)

    If the original flights on VS went ahead, I would have accrued vs miles and tier points – can I claim for those too? (Could affect my status for next year)

    • Rob says:

      BA would let you claim the BA tier points and Avios you lost – it’s not clear if VS has the same policy but I’d be surprised if you had any trouble if it made the difference between status or not.

      New booking will keep same cancellation rules, yes.

      • bobby says:

        How do you make a claim? I lost out on silver because of a flight being cancelled a few days before departure which was a few days before my membership year end. BA paid the EU compensation.

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