/ 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?

Roger Gradeless says:
26 September 2015

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?