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28 Feb 2021

British Airways told to return £5,000 to customer who wasn't allowed to change his flight

The airline says that the flight was non-refundable, but a judge ruled it hadn't made that clear enough when he booked

A British Airways customer has won a court battle against the airline, after it refused to allow him to change the date of his flight, meaning he had to cancel.

In March 2019, Which? member Robert Glenn booked business class flights from London to Hawaii to celebrate his wife's 65th birthday the following November. However, not long after booking, family reasons meant that he needed to change his flight.

Six months before the trip he asked British Airways if it could move it from November to September, but it refused. All he was entitled to, it said, was around £450 for the return of the tax. He'd need to buy an entirely new ticket if he wanted to change the dates. He lost more than £6,000.

Advice from Which? Legal helps win court case against British Airways

Robert approached Which? Legal, who advised that as, in Robert's case, British Airways had so long to resell the seat that he'd cancelled, it was arguable that it had not lost the full price of the ticket.

One crucial issue was whether or not British Airways had made it clear that the flights were non-transferable and non-refundable when he bought the ticket.

British Airways terms and conditions 'weren't highlighted'

After Robert escalated his claim to the then British Airways chief executive, Alex Cruz, the airline offered him a £500 voucher, but nothing else.

Almost 18 months after his booking, with further Which? Legal advice, he sent the airline a Letter Before Action, and in October 2020 a court ruled that the airline had to pay him the £5,000 he had claimed, plus legal costs of £520.

British Airways argued that he'd accepted that his flights were not refundable or changeable when he'd booked the ticket, as this was in its terms and conditions. However, in his summing up, the judge said that this was a 'term of such significance that it really needed to be highlighted'.

'He made a booking for something. He opted not to use it. On the face of it (subject to any administrative expenses that British Airways might have incurred), he ought to be entitled to a refund.'

Ultimately, Robert was awarded £5,000. He said: 'I'm delighted to have won, but I wish that it had shown some fairness and flexibility in the beginning so as to avoid the need for court.'

Can I get a refund for a flight if I decide not to travel?

During the pandemic, many thousands of people have cancelled flights because they felt it was too risky or irresponsible to travel. This puts them in a very different legal situation to people who have had their flight cancelled by the airline, or even those who can argue that it was actually illegal for them to take their flight.

Unfortunately, if you cancel your own ticket, airlines will almost always refuse to refund you. They normally argue that if you choose to book the cheapest, non-refundable ticket rather than a more expensive flexible ticket, then you should accept that you won't get anything back if you decide not to fly.

But flexible tickets could be vastly more expensive. In one example we looked at last year, a non-flexible ticket cost £57, while the exact same flight soared to £966 if you chose a flight where you could freely change the dates.

It's only in the past few months that many airlines, including British Airways, have introduced free flexible booking for most flights.

The judge in Robert's case implied that had British Airways managed to prove that its terms and conditions clearly highlighted 'no refunds' when he bought the ticket, he might have ruled differently.

British Airways response

British Airways didn't comment directly on the case except to stress that Robert's flight took place in 2019, before the introduction of Book With Confidence - the fee-free changes scheme mentioned above.

It also said that while Robert's flight dates couldn't be changed, some non-flexible flights can still be moved for a fee.

Important terms and conditions need to be clear

Robert's success is a reminder that if flight tickets are non-refundable, this needs, at the very least, to be made clear at the point of purchase, and not buried away in the terms and conditions.

It's also important to remember that if an airline cancels a flight covered by the EU and the UK's Denied Boarding Regulations, you're entitled to a full refund within seven days.

If you think that there's an unfair term in your contract with a company you can challenge it. Which? Travel members have access to legal advice from Which? Legal. You can find out more about Which? Legal here.