/ Money, Travel & Leisure

Why are passengers paying NOT to fly?


Journalist Joe Churcher recently missed a return flight and found he had to pay for the privilege of not travelling. In this guest piece Joe argues no other service would get away with this.

You’re having one of those days. Work kept you late, you lost your keys, the bus broke down and now you’ve missed the first half at the theatre. When you get there, they’ve sold your seat to someone else. Oh, and they want you to pay them a large fee for your bum not being in it for the first half.

Unthinkable right?

How about being barred from pudding and charged extra because you pre-paid for a three-course set menu but then weren’t hungry for a starter?

Laughable eh?

Being turfed off a train and fined because you had got a lift rather than use the outward half of your return ticket? Ridiculous, I know.

But now I find this is considered normal and acceptable by airlines – and not just the ones from which you might expect it.

Airlines one; passengers nil

I bought a return ticket with British Airways. An urgent work matter came up that meant delaying the trip. It was cheaper to book a new flight with a budget carrier than pay the fee to amend it. So far so normal – I’ve sadly come to expect that.

But – and here’s the rub – BA informed me that unless I was on their plane, they would cancel the whole ticket. The only option? Convert the return portion to a single at a cost in fees of around £90, minus some taxes. That’s right: I had to pay for the privilege of NOT sitting in a seat that BA were then free to sell to someone else. Double bonus for them; hole in the wallet for me.

I was lucky to find out in advance. Several friends did so the hard way…

One found himself stranded overseas with no money or means to call his family. When he arrived at the airport he was told he had been removed from his flight home because he’d gone out a different way.

The parent of a student was forced to pay through the nose for a replacement flight in similar circumstances. Friends doing voluntary work took a bus hundreds of miles out of their way across Chile just so the rest of their trip was not annulled after hearing of others left in limbo.

Charges are unfair and unnecessary

Let’s be clear: this arrangement is laid out in the small print. But it would seem farcical applied to any other service I can think of.

Has this ever happened to you? Please share your own similar stories. It’s time that the airlines start to understand just how iniquitous this policy is. Do you, like me, think it should be ended?

This is a guest contribution by journalist Joe Churcher. All opinions are Joe’s own, not necessarily those of Which?


Perhaps BA could be asked to explain the logic behind this? Is it covered by Unfair Terms as a contract?

Its time governments stopped businesses issuing unfair contract they should make it a crime in itself. It seems “Free Trade” means businesses are allowed to do just as they like without any restriction on them yet they demand numerous rights when it come to ensure their right to behaviour intolerably and governments jump to their defence. If they don’t then they demand the right to sue them via TTIP.

I like to enter Conversations with some details available to make a thoughtful and useful comment. Through lack of time to locate airlines Terms and Conditions applicable to booking return ticket I will pass on this.

A link to the terms in the small print may have been useful or even an excerpt if a link is difficult.

However thank you Joe for flagging this up as a problem . No doubt Which? staffers will put a response from BA here to progress the subject.

A company I used to work for regularly needed someone to go from Kent to Scotland for a week-long trip. They found out that the cost of a return trip on the day they were due to go, plus the cost of a similar two-way trip from Scotland to Kent and returning to Scotland on the return day was cheaper than a single flight with a return a week later. When the airline involved finally put two and two together they went balistic.

Did you know that it is standard practice to over-book flights because the airlines know that a small percentage of passengers won’t turn up? If you are ever at an airport and hear the PA announcement that an airline is offering money for people prepared to miss their flight and travel on the next flight, that is because everyone turned up for the earlier flight and being over-booked the plane can’t hold everybody booked to fly on it.

This was back in 2008, but on the flipside; American Airlines charged me only around $50 to extend my flight by two weeks after not even notifying them I would not be on the original return journey. Have things changes so much since then?

They main issue here is that KEY conditions of the contract should be highly visible when booking – in my view “hiding” these sort of conditions (in the case of airlines for example) in reams of small print called fare code conditions is not fair on the consumer.

I casually input “fare code conditions” and came up with Qatari Air and then in effect revealed nothing.

What was interesting was :
” Modifications to terms
These Terms and Conditions and/or other information provided on this Website may be updated, amended, changed, or removed by QATAR AIRWAYS at anytime and without further notice to you. You should reread these Terms and Conditions every time you visit the Website and ensure that you review all the relevant documents each time you use this Website. By using this Website you agree to be bound by the latest version of such documents.”

I try to never travel by plane and his reminds me why. Not only you get treated worse than cattle but the companies are not in the top echelons of ethical or reasonable behaviour.

These terms and conditions apply to the use of the website not to the purchase of tickets. There will be a different set for the tickets.

Airlines sell numerous types of ticket from a cheap return with stringent conditions to a fully flexible ticket allowing changes, the differance in price can be ten fold at least. No different from an advance train fare limiting you to a specific train to a full fare allowing travel on any train. Another factor is airlines prices vary depending on local markets so for example a BA flight from London to New York may be more expensive than a BA flight from Paris to New York via London, so to stop people buying the fare from Paris but just starting in London, they will automatically cancel your flight if you do not sart in Paris, if it was a return ticket they will also cancel the return. Search the internet for “Hidden City Ticketing”. Everyone wants the cheapest ticket but invariably (self included) will tick the box saying they agree to the terms & conditions but how many actually read them.

gilbert Wilson says:
25 September 2015

I payed Ryan air £128 to fly from Preatwick to Stanstead return they then asked for my passport# I then found that my passport had expired They would not let me Fly nor would they give me a refund .Since then I have driven to Surrey every time I go south. Yours G Wilson

Daniel says:
25 September 2015

I have a certain amount of sympathy for those affected, but each knew, or had the opportunity to view the terms and conditions so why whinge now? I don’t fly often but I read the conditions for the ticket, same as I do when I sign any contract such as car hire , holiday rental, or whatever. If you don’t want to agree to the contract then go elsewhere, or stop whinging and get real! Everyone will try to screw you!!!!

Contract ? What kind of zombie peasant are you at the feet of the corporate gangsters ? A contract is a document drawn up by two parties or their legal representatives with negotiated terms. When Microsoft or EBAY or British Airways of whichever corporate Mafia forces you to either tick a box or not have the service there is no mutual consent or representation to the terms being forced upon us. It is a farce and amoral to imply that such corporate enforcement qualifies as a contract.

Ive tried exactly the same situation and had a colleague print out BA’s T&C’s for the ticket to verify – I can’t remember if it was 26 or 28 pages of tightly written legal garbilidigook – if you travel frequently and use different companies – that is NOT ok to expect you pick up every little stupid detail – like he fact that you do not own the seat you have actually paid for, if for some stupid reason you happen to change your travel plans!!!!

Daniel says:
25 September 2015

Gilbert, what a sorry tale you tell: you messed up and you expect the airline to to pat you on the head, like a 5 year old, and say sorry to you . What planet do you live on?

You shouldn’t need a passport to fly within the UK. Your tone is patronising .

But for security reasons I wish to be satisfied that every other passenger on my plane is who they say they are and is bona fide with no travel bans or movement restrictions or arrest warrants outstanding. Is there a better way than scanning the passport to check for that?

I agree the tone was patronising and the comment was uncalled for.

Perhaps the new Consumer Rights Act will address the disproportionate penalties and charges imposed by airlines to change flights. Or perhaps airlines are too large to be bothered by such legal inconveniences.

Howard Simon Marks makes an interesting point when he says “It is a farce and amoral to imply that such corporate enforcement qualifies as a contract.”. We’ve become used to simply signing without reading or simply buying, which is exactly why strong consumer protection laws are essential. In the case of air travel the situation seems more complex as your contract is dependent on numerous internationally-recognised agreements.

This is a cause of contention on the Trip Advisor Air Travel forum all the time. The airlines cancel the return portion because if you haven’t gone on the outward bound they assume you are not travelling. I don’t see anything wrong in that, unless you have notified them of the change then you have to accept that you may lose your flight.

A lot of people now book single flights instead of a return when flying with standard carriers but then this could cause problems if you need to transfer to another flight to another destination and the in bound flight is late. At least if you have a through ticket you will be helped to get the next flight out. By going on a single ticket you won’t be covered by the company’s rules.

Its the same with everything, you may not like it but if its in the T&Cs and you don’t check them and get caught out then you need to be prepared for the consequences.

Then there is being on the Eurostar and receiving a text from BA to say my flight from Heathrow to Aberdeen has been cancelled and to phone their phone line to reschedule. Stumped up to one of their help desks at Heathrow to be told it was one of six flights cancelled that day (13 August) and that it was so they could amalgamate flights in to one to ensure it was full! Apparently this is common BA practice! Meanwhile I have emailed them to see what compensation they will offer. Unsurprisingly I am still waiting to here from them.

Please keep us up-dated. That is atrocious. My wife used to fly frequently to Edinburgh around 5 years ago from Bristol and it was amazing how may problems lead to flights being amalgamated.

in the case of Ryanair why did they claim that an expired British passport did not establish the holder’s identity – which is all they need to do for a domestic flight. I suspect any response from this particular carrier wouldn’t stand scrutiny.

I have had the most upsetting experience with BA in the last few months. My husband and I (both retired) booked a 6 week holiday of a lifetime to Alaska and Canada with tickets to Calgary Stampede and many other exciting trips. We were due to fly club to Seattle at 10.00 but unfortunately my husband was rushed to hospital the night before and admitted at 05.30. By the time I got home and had phoned my son in Singapore and had an unplanned nap it was 09.00 before I was able to phone BA. The plane had not yet boarded. I told them we wouldn’t be flying that morning but I wanted to keep the return club flight from Vancouver 6 weeks later as Dr had told me my husbands condition was an acute infection but with iv antibiotics he would be fine after 3-4 days in hospital. BA told me that the return leg is automatically cancelled if you don’t fly the outbound journey. They did however offer to sell my seats back to me for another £5000!
I have to accept this was in their terms and conditions but what I cannot accept is their complete lack of customer service. The hospital had phoned me on the afternoon we were due to travel to tell me he was distraught as he’d let his wife of 45 years down after he’d heard we couldn’t salvage any of our trip without another huge financial outlay. I put my feelings in an impersonal form on BA’s website as it’s the only way they will communicate with you. After a week I got a bland corporate response where they gave me a completely new surname in the response showing how little attention they took of my complaint.
I have been unable to find an email address or a phone number to customer services and admit taking to Twitter to moan about their appalling lack of care and understanding to 2 elderly silver card holders who have travelled extensively with them over the last 20 years. I’ve obviously annoyed them so that’s a result, and my 16 year old granddaughter is now in awe of my Twitter skills! My travel agent wrote to them for me and after 5 weeks I received a reply which apologised for the typo of my name (only first and last letter in right place!), expressed sorrow that we were upset but basically said it was all our fault.
I will never fly with them again except to use our almost 500000 Avios points up. We have just returned from 3 week trip to Sri Lanka after my wonderful travel insurance company, Saga paid out our holiday expenses quickly and efficiently and we flew off with Emirates, our new preferred airline
BA reduced my proud husband to tears in hospital and I can never forgive them for that. They do not even have the decency to pick up the phone and talk to us.

Gill, a dreadful experience – hope your husband is fully recovered. It would be interesting to know if your BA flight happened to be overbooked. However you appear to have had proper travel insurance to deal with the financial side of situations like this?

Gill, that is heart rending and details truly atrocious behaviour from BA. FWIW you have my sympathy in the extreme. I must admit it’s instances like yours that make me convinced we need a legal way to hold individuals responsible for this sort of thing, and not merely the company.

I’ve managed to get my hands on the 56 pages of Terms and Conditions for BA flights. I’ve spent about an hour trawling through it and still haven’t found the relevant bit to which Joe was referring.

But what strikes you is two things: whereas I can understand the need to have terms and conditions in writing for almost every conceivable contingency, I do not believe it’s either reasonable or fair to expect passengers to read them in detail for every flight and every carrier.

The other aspect is the length. I’ve read shorter novels. Worryingly, few airlines seem any better. In Manchester, Flybe is referred to routinely as ‘FlyMaybe’, a rather worrying indictment of their schedule adherence. But any airline that treats its customers the way Gill was treated needs to be brought into line. It’s time for these one-sided contracts to be subject to intense scrutiny and for airlines to be made to show the critical aspects of all the Terms and Conditions in easy to read English and bold, large typefaces.

Meanwhile, we can only hope passengers vote with their feet and use the train.

The idea that just because it is in the small print airlines can charge passengers for not boarding a plane is ludicrous. What they are saying in a nutshell is, we are charging you for prevented us from maximising our income. If we accept this, we accept that they and other greedy companies can charge us anything for anything, just because it’s in the small print, so long as it’s “legal”. Where does is end? What is the realm of the acceptable before a judge says to the airline, you’re kidding me? Airlines watchout, it has been ruled that “technical issues” are not “extraordinary circumstance”. This battle is our next one.