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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, of course, so your seat reservation fees are back at risk.

BA seat reservation fees refund

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 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 for March.   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 for two.  Bargain.

BA seat reservation fees refund

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):

BA seat reservation fees refund

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 £488 for seat selection is ‘fair’ when the airline can cancel the underlying seat reservation without penalty and suffers no loss when you cancel, 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:

For the avoidance of doubt, paid seating will not be refunded if you are involuntarily upgraded;

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. You do get a refund if you choose to pay to upgrade and do not want to pay for selection in the higher cabin.

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.

BA seat reservation fees refund

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 a 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 (125)

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

  • MrMcBurger says:

    I would be quite confident in getting a refund after issuing Money Claim court case. They would not dare let it go to judgement for the sake of a few hundred pounds, when knowing lots wont fight it.

  • Peter says:

    I was caught out by this recently. BA took nearly £1000 from me. It’s ax ludicrous way to treat loyal customers. It had meant that I now make it a company policy that we do not got with BA and they will miss out on £1000s each year. I also converted all of my 100,000s of airmiles to nectar Points.
    Not that they care.

    • Peter K says:

      Hmmm. I smell a rat. Airmiles rather than avios.
      Caught out recently and 100,000s into nectar, but only 50k a month can be transferred.

    • Steveh says:

      Hello Hello? Surely if you have “100,000s of airmiles” and are a “loyal customer”, then you would have earned silver or gold status, and then you wouldn’t be paying the seat selection fee.

      • Firsttotheleft says:

        I’ve got over a million Avios and have had as many as two million. Am blue level and always have been. Reward flights don’t get you status.

  • JD says:

    The best article I’ve read here for months and a refreshing change from “here’s a review of the Holiday Inn Express in Taipei”

  • Colin MacKinnon says:

    Paid £100 each to fly to Australia in two of the four 787 old CW window seats with direct aisle access.

    Essential for a 24 hour journey!

    Just back from the USA in Club Suite – what a difference. Would never pay for a CS seat.

  • Ben says:

    Given frequent flyer members dont pay for seat selection, not sure it would be considered fair or a genuine estimate of loss.

  • Robin says:

    Last year I booked a BA flight, through American in First, with AA miles, and selected the seat on booking. Then booked the same flight with Avios and had to wait until 24 hours before flying to select the seat.

    • Jonathan says:

      AA points has such radical differences in pricing depending on what day you wish to travel

  • Martin S says:

    It wouldn’t even occur to me that the seat selection fees wouldn’t be refunded. I would just assume that as they are part of the flight booking they would be included in any refund.

    I recently booked some flights with JAL and despite me having no status with them, I was able to choose my seats for free at the time of booking which left me thinking “why doesn’t BA do this?”

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

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