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Monday, August 15, 2022

The sneaky caveat on flexible airline tickets that could cost you hundreds

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Telegraph Travel receives a number of questions from readers each week. Below, Oliver Smith, Assistant Head of Travel, looks into the latest dilemma. 

John Payne writes…

On its website, Virgin Atlantic trumpets its flexible booking policy. “We understand that changing travel advice and restrictions can make planning your trip a bit of a challenge,” it says, reassuringly. “Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.” Well not entirely, it seems. 

I recently booked Economy flights to the US, and stumbled upon an anomaly after I later decided to upgrade my return journey to Premium. If you book a flight in Economy but then subsequently choose to purchase an upgrade to a higher cabin (Premium or Upper Class), Virgin makes you do it through what they call Advance Seat Assignment (ASA). Rather than cancelling your ticket and issuing a new one, you choose a seat in the higher cabin using its seat selection tool and pay for the upgrade. This typically costs hundreds of pounds, so you’re not really paying just to choose a seat – you are paying for the upgrade itself. 

That’s fine, but the small-print catch is that ASA fees are non-refundable – they don’t count as part of the base fare if you subsequently need to change or cancel the flight under the flexible booking policy. The airline simply scoops the money paid for the upgrade and calculates any revised figure using the original base fare. 

On the other hand, if you originally book in a higher cabin, that isn’t “seat assignment” at all: it would be included in the base fare. 

I don’t understand why there should be a difference: the airline would not haemorrhage any money if it were to include the upgrade in calculating a rebooked fare. If the rebooked fare is lower than the original fare, it does not refund the difference anyway. Maybe this is an industry standard? It would be useful to know for future reference in deciding whether to buy in a higher cabin in the first place (and indeed who to fly with).

Oliver Smith, Assistant Head of Travel, replies…

Should their travel plans change, passengers who have paid extra for refundable flight tickets might think their money is completely safe. However, airlines have for many years declined to hand back “optional” fees for extras such as seat selection and speedy boarding if customers choose to cancel. It’s a rather subtle way to make a bit of extra money, and – despite regular complaints from passengers – standard practice. Given that seat selection fees can total hundreds of pounds, it doesn’t seem particularly fair, especially as the carrier may be able to re-sell the forfeited ticket and end up making a tidy profit. Airlines, of course, will counter such complaints by saying the policy is outlined at the time of booking (if you manage to spot it in the terms and conditions).

However, I wasn’t aware that airlines were now treating something as substantial as an upgrade to a premium cabin in the same way. Switching from economy to first class, something that might cost thousands of pounds, certainly stretches to its limits the definition of “seat selection”.

Virgin defended its policy by pointing out that passengers can upgrade their ticket without putting their money in jeopardy – by picking up the phone.

“To ensure flexibility, we provide two ways for our customers to upgrade their cabin,” it said. “The first option is an ancillary upgrade. These are hassle-free, and usually available at a discounted rate, but include limitations, such as being non-refundable.

“Passengers also have the option to upgrade to a higher cabin by contacting our customer service team. In this instance, the ticket is reissued to the new cabin and the usual rules will apply.”

Given a choice between a hassle-free online change and a potentially long wait to speak to a customer services representative, one can imagine the vast majority choose the former option. Whether they spot the small print is another matter. 

A spokesperson for the UK Civil Aviation Authority said it expects airlines to be transparent with optional extras that are non-refundable. 

They added: “If a consumer is concerned that their airline is not being transparent, they should first raise a complaint with the company directly. If they are not satisfied with the response, they can seek redress via the approved Alternative Dispute Resolution service. The providers, CEDR or AviationADR, will independently review the claim and make a decision, which is binding on the airline.

“Where an airline is not signed up to the Alternative Dispute Resolution service, passengers can escalate their complaint to the Civil Aviation Authority’s Passenger Advice and Complaints Team.”

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