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No, a free British Airways upgrade never ends in a refund for you

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

It goes without saying that if you get a free upgrade on your British Airways flight you won’t qualify for a refund. So why does this passenger disagree?

Who doesn’t love a free flight upgrade on British Airways? Charles S., that’s who. On a long-haul trip the airline upgraded his seat at no cost. But when he returned home, he shot off a lengthy complaint to the airline’s CEO demanding a refund.

So what’s going on here?

This request for a refund for an upgraded seat is one that had my advocacy team a bit baffled. But as with all the stories we tell, there is a lesson here. And although Charles didn’t want to hear that lesson, you likely will.

Is this really a “lost upgrade” on British Airways

Charles and his wife used a travel agent to book their round-trip British Airways flights from Chicago to Tel Aviv. The agent helped the couple carefully preselect their seats on the four legs of their itinerary. 

“My wife and I paid an extra $300 for seats with extra legroom,” Charles reported. “We selected an exit row for one flight and bulkhead seats for the rest.”

The problems began on the way home from Tel Aviv. Charles and his wife did not receive their bulkhead seats. Instead, he discovered that British Airways had moved their seats to ones toward the back of the plane.

When Charles protested at the check-in counter, the British Airways representative gave the couple new seats. Although these seats were near the front of the plane, Charles says they weren’t the seats for which he paid.

Disgruntled, the couple boarded the plane and found their newly assigned seats, which were just behind a bulkhead. Charles noted that the seat numbers did not match the seat map his travel agent had shown him months before.

“We are convinced that given that we had purchased our upgraded seats so far ahead, British Airways reconfigured the seating arrangements,” Charles surmised. “This reconfiguration caused us to lose our upgrade.”

Seeing no other alternative, Charles and his wife took their new seats and flew home. And then he began his quest to receive a refund for his “lost flight upgrade.”

The wrong way to try to fix a problem with British Airways

When Charles initially asked for our assistance, he had already taken quite a few missteps in his self-advocacy efforts. The most glaring one was his almost 2-page complaint sent to the CEO of British Airways.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, company CEOs are not the place to start when you are trying to solve a problem. There are teams of customer service people below the top executive who are trained to handle consumer complaints. And once you have reached that highest level, if your request is not favorably received, where else can you go? Nowhere.

For this reason, it is always best to start your resolution attempts at the customer service level. If you do not receive the desired outcome, then you can systematically work your way up the chain of command.

An excellent place to start any attempt at fixing a consumer problem is Consumer Rescue’s guide to self-advocacy. Unfortunately, Charles had not reviewed this article. His first mistake was to send an email directly to the CEO of British Airways. His second and third mistakes: that email was much too long and was filled with insults and inaccurate information.

When Charles did not receive the refund he demanded, he asked our advocacy team to get it for him.

Fact: Passengers are never guaranteed a specific seat on any flight

The flight upgrade that Charles referenced in his emails to our team and to British Airways was for a specific bulkhead seat. He insisted that his travel agent told him that the fee he paid would guarantee a bulkhead seat.

Knowing that was not possible to buy a bulkhead seat on that flight, I explained to Charles that his case wasn’t one that we could successfully advocate. Charles wasn’t convinced that I understood his dilemma.

“Are you telling me that bulkhead seats are not guaranteed, do not cost more than any other seat, and can be changed without recourse to the consumer?” Charles asked. “Then it begs the question as to why our agent pulled up open seating on the British Airways site. Why, then, did we even book seats?”

Unfortunately, Charles’s incredulity over this fact of airline seating is not unique. Each month, our advocacy team receives messages from a handful of angry consumers who have found themselves in the same situation. And our team is tasked with breaking the news: Your specific seat on any airline, in any cabin, is never guaranteed.

Every airline across the board includes this seating information in its terms and conditions. And British Airways is no different. Here is an excerpt from the British Airways contract of carriage:

  • 5e) Seating
  • 5e1) We will try to honour advance seating requests.
  • 5e2) We cannot guarantee that you will be able to sit in any particular seat.
  • 5e3) We can change your seat at any time, even after you have boarded the aircraft, as we may need to do this for operational, safety or security reasons.

Did British Airways downgrade this couple?

We aren’t able to advocate seat assignment changes unless that seat change downgrades the passenger to a lower cabin class. In that situation, the airline will owe the traveler the price differential between the two cabins. And in the case of a European airline, there are specific compensations owed for an involuntary downgrade as per the EC 261 regulation.

So did British Airways downgrade this couple?

I asked Charles on several occasions if his and his wife’s seats placed them in a lower cabin class. This scenario seemed unlikely since their seat assignments moved the couple forward and not backward. But Charles continued to insist that the loss of the bulkhead seat was a lost upgrade. According to Charles, British Airways owed him $180 for the debacle.

Unfortunately, I seemed to be getting nowhere with this passenger.

Switching consumer advocates 

Often when a consumer is not happy with the decision of one of our team members, another one of us will jump in for backup. So my colleague, Dwayne Coward, decided to give this one a try. Dwayne reiterated my earlier advice that Charles’s email to the CEO was far too long. But he disagreed with Dwayne as well.

Dwayne, Please believe me that people can and will read a one-and-a-half page, well laid out letter. Your guidance presumes that once you keep kicking things up to the next level that something will happen. I am here to say that with British Airways, nothing happens, even when you email or write a professional letter to their CEO.

Charles to Dwayne Coward, consumer advocate

Dwayne pointed out to Charles that we resolve many cases with British Airways.

But all of our consumer advocacy advice presumes that you have a resolvable case — with the facts on your side. And by sending a giant letter to the top of British Airways, Charles was not following our guidance.

Dwayne tried again. He asked Charles for any supporting documentation that could help his case.

And that’s when Charles sent a document that closed his case — permanently.

If you get a free flight upgrade — British Airways won’t owe you a refund

What Charles sent was an email that he received from British Airways explaining why he wasn’t owed any refund.

When Charles and his wife checked in for their flight to Tel Aviv, British Airways had moved the couple to row 35. Their round-trip tickets were purchased in the World Traveller economy class.

Row 35 is within the World Traveller economy class. However, when Charles complained about his lost bulkhead seat, the British Airways representative gave the couple a free flight upgrade. They were moved to seat 21. This seat is in the World Traveller Plus premium economy cabin with additional amenities.

British Airways amenities in the upgraded cabin on the transatlantic flight.

A free flight upgrade to World Traveller Plus on British Airways offers many additional amenities.

Unfortunately, this information still did not assuage Charles’s anger. He continues to insist that he paid British Airways for a bulkhead seat and that the airline owes him $180. He does not agree that he received a free flight upgrade.

It’s unclear how he determined the value of his lost bulkhead seat. But a flight upgrade to World Traveller Plus costs much more than $180 for two people. And as I have pointed out on a number of occasions, passengers can’t take an upgrade and then expect a refund after they enjoy the flight.

What happens when British Airways must change your assigned seat?

British Airways dedicates a page on its website to explain what happens when it becomes necessary for the airline to change a passenger’s prepaid seat.

What happens when we change your seat?

Sometimes we may need to change reserved seats, even after you have boarded the aircraft. Although we will do all possible to prevent this, it might be unavoidable for a number of reasons, including a change of aircraft due to operational, safety or security reasons, so we cannot guarantee your reserved seat.

If we have to change your seat, we will do our best to offer you a suitable alternative. We will try to seat your group together, then match your choice of window, middle or aisle seat, if possible. If you have paid for an exit row seat, we will try to offer you another exit row seat.

British Airways

British Airways specifically excludes bulkhead seats as a type of seat that can be prepurchased. These seats are generally saved for passengers “with a disability or those traveling with an infant (under 2 years of age).” So when you reserve a bulkhead seat, you will always run the risk of getting bumped out of it if another passenger in one of those categories needs the seat.

Exit rows, however, can often be prepurchased and cost more than general seating. Charles and his wife did receive the exit rows for which they prepaid and reserved.

Finally, British Airways also details that a passenger can’t claim a refund on prepaid seats if they accept a free flight upgrade. And that is precisely what Charles and his wife did. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

*Before you go: There are acceptable ways to ask for an upgrade… and then there are very bad ways to ask. This “influencer” found out the difference in a very unpleasant way.

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.