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British Airways / GN Gray / 18143

Ruling of the : ASA Directorate
In the matter between:
George N Gray Complainant(s)/Appellant(s)
British Airways PLC Respondent

16 Nov 2011

Mr Gray lodged a consumer complaint against British Airways’ practice in terms of allocating seats as well as its advertising promoting the accumulation and use of “BA Miles”.

With regards to the latter, the respondent’s website www.britishairways.com lists “Membership benefits” for “Executive Club” members, which states that “As a British Airways Executive Club member, you have the chance to collect BA Miles, which you can spend on reward flights or upgrades. The more BA Miles you collect, the further they can take you”.

COMPLAINT
The complainant effectively raised two issues:

  • When purchasing tickets for him and his wife, he was unable to select seating of his choice without having to pay an additional R283,00 per seat per trip. There is no mention in any of the material supplied when booking tickets that this is the case. As such, the respondent’s advertising is misleading.

  • Over time, the complainant has accumulated around 56 000 BA Miles, which he twice attempted to use to purchase tickets for his daughter (once on a return flight between Johannesburg and Durban, and more recently a return flight between Johannesburg and Edinburg). However, in both instances the respondent did not allow the complainant to use these miles as planned. Given this, and given that the website lists no restrictions, this is also misleading advertising.

RELEVANT CLAUSE OF THE CODE OF ADVERTISING PRACTICE
In light of the complaint Clause 4.2.1 of Section II (Misleading claims) of the Code was taken into account.

RESPONSE
On the first ground of complaint the respondent submitted that a drop-down menu is provided on its website when a user hovers over the “Flights” tab, which clearly displays the sub-heading “Choosing your seat”. Had the complainant viewed this information, he would have seen that, when travelling Premium Economy (the class within which World Traveller Plus exists), one is not allocated a specific seat upon booking a flight. Instead, it is possible to reserve one’s seat from the time of booking for an additional booking fee of GBP 25 (or, as is also stated within this information, the equivalent amount in the passenger’s local currency, which is the R283,00 to which the complainant refers.)

While true that the respondent’s “General Conditions of Carriage” (mentioned in the letter of complaint) do not explicitly refer to the seat reservation charge, this is because the conditions govern all classes of flight, including those to which a seat reservation charge does not apply. However, these conditions are made available to the passenger prior to confirmation of booking or receipt of payment. The conditions provide that where the respondent issues “a ticket without a reservation being specified on it, you may make a reservation later but whether you will be able to do so will depend on our tariff and whether a seat is available on your chosen flight” (respondent’s emphasis).

The complainant also refers to also having recently recovered from a severe illness and continuing problems with his knee. Once again the complainant seems to have failed to notice a provision on the General Conditions of Carriage that a passenger with a disability who requires any special assistance “should inform us at the time of booking” of his or her special needs. Attention was also drawn to the “Disability assistance” link that is clearly present throughout the online flight booking process and which refers customers to the respondent’s disability policy.

In arguing the second ground of complaint, the respondent submitted that its website clearly refers to the “Executive Club – Terms and Conditions” which state that bookings are subject to availability and cannot be waitlisted. The complainant attempted to redeem his Executive Club points only two months prior to his departure date. Seats are released 11 months prior to the date of departure and customers are advised to make appropriate booking as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.

ASA DIRECTORATE RULING
The ASA Directorate considered all the relevant documentation submitted by the respective parties.

At the outset, it is noted that the ASA, in assessing the complaint, determined that the first objection raised by the complainant relates to the respondent’s business practices and booking procedure, rather than advertising. At this time, the complainant was advised that the Directorate would not consider his first objection for these reasons. It would appear, however, that the respondent has not received a copy of the ASA’s letter to the complainant advising him of this. As such, the Directorate opted to clarify this again in the ruling, even if only for the benefit of the respondent.

This ruling therefore only has to deal with the question of whether or not the advertising for the respondent’s BA Miles was misleading.

The main concern here appears to be that the complainant was unable to redeem his BA Miles for a return flight for his daughter, despite the wording on the website implying that this would be possible.

The response appears to indicate that, at the time of the complainant attempting to redeem his miles in this manner, there were no longer any seats available on his flights of choice. This is substantially different from the complainant’s assumption and allegation that he was simply denied the right to purchase tickets using his BA Miles.

While it may, perhaps, be debatable whether consumers would necessarily expect there to only be a limited number of seats available and allocated for these types of flights or tickets, this is not currently the issue that the Directorate has to consider. The complainant’s allegation is simply that he was denied outright, and without any justification, the option of purchasing a ticket using his BA Miles.

From the response submitted, it would appear that the complainant perhaps misunderstood the reasons, or was incorrectly advised, which would relate to service-concerns, falling outside the ASA’s jurisdiction. The material at hand, however, appears to suggest that the complainant was simply not able to book a flight because no more seats for such tickets were available. Presumably, he would have been able to obtain such a ticket at a different time and on a different flight.

Given this, it appears that the complaint is technically, and factually incorrect.

For these reasons, the advertisement appearing on the respondent’s website insofar as the BA Miles is concerned was not misleading for the reasons highlighted by the complainant. Therefore the advertising was not in contravention of Clause 4.2.1 of Section II of the Code.

The complaint is accordingly dismissed.

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