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14 Apr 2022

Is British Airways breaking consumer law on flight cancellations again?

Airline fails to rebook passengers on other carriers to get home and tries to dodge compensation
British Airways plane at stand

British Airways customers who had their flights cancelled at the last minute were left to book their own flights home, which BA is refusing to pay for.

Airlines are required by law to offer passengers whose flights they have cancelled rebooking to their destination at the 'earliest opportunity'. Crucially, this includes booking them with other airlines when necessary. But BA has insisted it will only rebook customers on its own flights or carriers it has a commercial relationship with, even when this may not be available for a number of days.

This has left some passengers stranded or forced to pay for expensive new flights to get home. The Civil Aviation Authority has previously warned airlines, including BA, that it must reroute passengers on any alternative service, not just those where it has a commercial relationship.

Stranded by BA in Milan

Tom Stringer, his partner and four children were due to fly from Milan Linate to Heathrow on 26 February. They were already at the airport when their flight was cancelled. Tom says he was told the next available flight BA could put them on was in two days. Subsequently unable to reach BA on the phone, they booked themselves on a KLM flight that got them home later the same day. Tom applied to BA for reimbursement of the KLM flights but this was refused with BA stating 'We're not liable to look at reimbursing any alternative travel costs'. Instead, it automatically issued a refund for the BA cancelled flight.

Tom's alternate flights, booked at the last minute, were far more expensive than the original British Airways flights which BA refunded. British Airways may have breached consumer law in failing to reroute the customer, and in refunding them the cost of the original flight rather than reimbursing the more expensive alternative flight as requested.

British Airways compensation - what the airline isn't telling customers

Many BA passengers whose flights were cancelled due to the latest IT meltdown and BA staff shortages were also due compensation for the cancellation.

After Brexit, the government brought the European Union's EC261 rules into British law. It sets out that passengers are entitled to between £220-£520 compensation when a flight is cancelled with less than seven days notice, depending on the distance to your destination and how long to takes to reroute you.

This means British Airways customers affected by recent cancellations were entitled to compensation. The airline was legally required to inform those passengers of their right to compensation. Yet cancellation letters and emails BA sent out to passengers, and seen by Which? make no mention of compensation rights. This will mean many BA customers won't claim money they are legally due from the airline.

British Airways tries to avoid compensation claims

The airline also sent out emails to customers warning of potential cancellations of their flights. It said that the flight may not go ahead, and the passenger had three options; cancel and claim a refund (if fare rules allowed), rebook for another date with British Airways for free, or do nothing and hope the flight goes ahead.

This communication is useful in trying to give passengers some options around travel, rather than facing last-minute disruption at the airport. However, BA again failed to inform passengers about their rights to compensation if the flight was to be subsequently cancelled. Nor did it tell them by cancelling their own flight, as suggested by BA in the email, they would surrender their right to compensation.

The customers Which? spoke to who received these emails subsequently had their flight cancelled by BA just a few hours later, which entitled them to £220 in compensation.

Stuck overnight - BA will pay

Many customers who have been affected by the hundreds of BA cancellations have struggled to get information from the airline about what their rights are and what to do, as there have been few staff available at the airport and phone lines have been jammed.

With British Airways failing to reroute, many passengers were left with no option but to stay overnight in a hotel while waiting for a new flight. British Airways has at least been clear that it will reimburse customers for these stays, up to £200 for a hotel room.

BA responds

A BA spokesperson told us: 'Where a customer's flight is cancelled, we always offer options including a full refund, rerouting or rebooking onto another service, including with other airlines. We always meet our legal obligations.'

It has issued Tom Stringer with compensation but continues to refuse to reimburse him for his KLM flights.

Which? has reported British Airways to the Civil Aviation Authority.