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Aviation: Unfair no-show fees?

Consumer association Which? suggests airlines may be breaking consumer law by imposing ‘no-show’ clauses on passengers who book return travel but do not use the outward portion of a ticket. These controversial conditions can result in cancellation of a customer’s return flight without refund if they no-show for their outbound trip, sometimes leaving them stranded or facing the prospect of buying another ticket to get home. Which? has written to eight carriers, claiming that it believes the practice breaches the Consumer Rights Act and the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Directive.

One way air travel is often much more expensive than buying a return. The Aviation Oracle picked a random week in February to illustrate the different fares:

Return London Heathrow - New York John F Kennedy - London Heathrow

British Airways depart Feb 6, return Feb 13 (weekend): £295

British Airways depart Feb 11, return Feb 15 (midweek): £1,428

Virgin Atlantic depart Feb 6, return Feb 13 (weekend): £316

Virgin Atlantic depart Feb 11, return Feb 15 (midweek): £1,428

One way New York John F Kennedy - London Heathrow

British Airways departing Feb 15: $2,789 (£2,207)

Virgin Atlantic departing Feb 15: $1,928 (£1,526)

The difference in fares can be very marked, especially when a round trip spans a weekend. Airlines charge what their analysis shows the market will stand, and many place a premium on one-way trips. Canny observers will notice that anyone wanting to travel one way from New York to London could save money by buying a return from London and just not use the outbound flight. Perhaps understandably, some passengers try to to ‘cheat’ the system by booking a return event though they only intend to travel one-way. Airlines countered by imposing ‘no-show’ clauses to protect their revenue. However, some passengers who have legitimately missed outbound flights - perhaps because they are delayed reaching the airport - have also been tripped up by these contractual conditions. Some travellers have complained that they have not been notified that their return seat has been cancelled, have not been given a refund, and have been forced to to buy another ticket.

Are airlines discriminating against passengers that book return tickets but only travel one way?

Which? believes that's unfair. Its managing director of home products and services, Alex Neill, said: “We don’t think there’s any good reason for a ‘no-show’ clause to exist – it only works in favour of the airline. It should be removed immediately by airlines, who need to show more respect for their passengers.”

The association is planning to take action against the practice, working alongside other European consumer groups. A case has already been launched against KLM in Germany and Austria. Meanwhile another, against Air France / KLM, is in progress in Belgium. Last year a judge ruled in favour of a passenger who contended that the Spanish airline Iberia’s imposition of a ‘no-show’ clause was unfair.

Which? claims that airlines including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Flybe, Emirates, KLM, Air France, Swiss, Qatar and Singapore Airlines have ‘no-show’ clauses in their terms and conditions. However Thomas Cook has abandoned them and Aurigny says they will be removed. Meanwhile easyJet,, Norwegian and Ryanair are singled out for not having such terms in their conditions of travel.

The Aviation Oracle can see both sides of the debate. A passenger who only travels one-way on a return ticket is not ‘costing’ an airline more than if they board both legs, so it could be argued that they should not be penalised. However, when a customer does not show for an outbound flight there will be an empty seat that could have sold to someone else, so the airline may be being deprived additional revenue. Equally a passenger using only the second part of a return ticket is not paying the tariff the airline intended to charge.

Some airlines have moved to transparent each way pricing, where the sum of two one-way fares doesn't exceed the cost of a return ticket. This may seem like a more balanced approach but it reduces the opportunity to charge higher fares to the lucrative weekday business market while still enabling leisure travellers to have a cheap weekend away. Airlines still have to balance their books and make a profit and anything that reduces revenue will ultimately result in higher fares for all. Irrespective of whether judges in the UK ultimately determine that 'no show' clauses are legal or not, its important to read the terms and conditions before buying a ticket.

Text © The Aviation Oracle

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