BA blocks Expedia and other agents from flight upgrades. What are the consumer protection implications?

Restrictive BA upgradesBritish Airways has pulled back on its support of travel agents and tour operators by restricting access to late special offer upgrades.

British Airways often offers last minute flight upgrades at discounted prices. They are called “proactive online upgrades” and mean you can upgrade to premium economy for as little as £149 each way on transatlantic flights. If you book directly with BA they are available up to 7 days before departure.

However when we booked a British Airways flight with Expedia the online upgrade offer was initially not be available. It was not until just before departure that the offer became available which was almost a week after it had become available to people who had booked directly with the airline.

This will be more than just an annoyance for travel companies and their customers but it also has serious consumer protection implications. If a customer books their flights, hotel and transfers with a single company then are covered by package holiday legislation. This legislation means the holiday company is responsible if elements of the holiday goes wrong.

However if consumers are encouraged to book their flights directly with the airline rather than with their accommodation provider then they could be left in legal limbo.

For example if your flight is delayed or cancelled then a single holiday provider would be responsible for ensuring that you get to your hotel as quickly as possible. You would not have to pay for any nights’ accommodation that you miss and indeed will be eligible compensation for any holiday curtailment.

However if you book your flight directly with the airline then you will be personally liable for every single night of accommodation you booked, even if you are not able to use it because of the delay. It is unlikely that the airline will compensate you for these expenses. They will usually just offer a refund on your air ticket or offer to get on their next available flight. If they do not run frequent flights to the destination you could be waiting for a long time.

It is also very frustrating for groups of passengers, some of whom may have booked direct with the airline and some who may have not. If they want to sit together then they would have to wait until the offer is made available to all of the passengers in the group.

So what is the advice to consumers?

• If you are looking to just book flights then booking directly with the airline may get you a special offer you would not get elsewhere. It is a bit of a gamble though because if the offer doesn’t ever materialise you may have paid more for your flight.

• If you want to book a holiday (ie flights and accommodation) then it is best to do this through one travel provider so that they take responsibility for the entire holiday. If you still want access to the airline exclusive offers then make sure you are one of the first to check in online 24 hours before departure. You should have a good chance to get the offer and failing that it may allow you to book a seat of your choice with extra legroom (e.g by the emergency exit).


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