Simon Calder: The price you pay for flying 'free' with British Airways

On 1 September 1910, the Evening Independent of St Petersburg, Florida, made an unprecedented offer: every day that the sun failed to shine in this Gulf Coast town, the newspaper would be given away "absolutely free, without cost or condition, to subscribers and strangers alike". In the 76 years for which the newspaper prospered beneath benign skies, the deal was called in only a handful of times.

In contrast, on 1 August 2008, British Airways launched a giveaway that could trigger a deluge of claims – offering frequent-flyer points to passengers whose flights are late.

I shall restate that implausible proposition. Europe's tardiest major airline, whose own in-house target does not even aspire to getting three out of four planes away within 15 minutes of schedule, is now dispensing largesse to the travellers it delays. The only better definition of "commercial suicide" I can imagine in the travel industry would be for VisitBritain to reward foreign holidaymakers every time it rains in the UK.

BA's remarkable proposition emerged just as its chief executive, Willie Walsh, was warning of "the worst trading environment the industry has ever faced".

Simultaneously, the airline's most important customers were reading an extraordinary email from another BA executive. Sarah Keyes, manager of BA's Executive Club, promised members 5,000 frequent-flyer points if their flight departs late: "You'll receive more than half the BA Miles you need for a reward flight to Paris, Geneva or Amsterdam," Ms Keyes writes.

At this point, thousands of jaws must have dropped. Recently, I experienced 25 delayed flights on BA in a row. As I have reported, the airline's punctuality has significantly improved since Terminal 5 opened at Heathrow, but even so, only one of the five BA flights I have taken since March has been on time. Surely any regular traveller on the airline will soon be on a free flight halfway to the Moon?

Keep dreaming. To limit its liability, BA has hedged the offer with conditions that ensure that only a tiny proportion of travellers qualify. The deal runs only until 2 September; it applies only to outbound flights that are more than 15 minutes late (the industry definition of a delay); services from Gatwick and Heathrow Terminals 1 and 4 are disallowed; only flights from Heathrow Terminal 5 count. And, of these, long-haul services are excluded; the flight must be to a domestic or European destination. Crucially, you must be a member of BA Executive Club travelling on a "flexible" ticket – that is, the most expensive fares, which few passengers use these days.

****

Suppose you do jump through all the hoops. The on-board clock ticks past that magic 15-minute mark, and you are still stuck on the ground at Heathrow. You picture yourself on a free flight halfway to Switzerland, Holland or France.

Not so fast. To redeem the offer on a hop from Heathrow to Geneva, you have to pay £48 in "taxes, fees, charges and surcharges"; in comparison, easyJet's lowest one-way fare from Gatwick to the Swiss city is £29 including all the extras.

BA's offer could also backfire by drawing attention to the increasing frustration of frequent flyers when they try to redeem their points. At the start of this month, I sought a flight to Boston and back using BA Miles. The price of the "free" trip was £231. I could travel on any dates I wanted, so long as it was next Monday or Tuesday. Oh, and I could return no later than Wednesday.

Never mind me. A businessman from Cheshire has been in touch about BA Miles. He is much more typical of the clientele BA is addressing with its current offer. He's amassed 200,000-plus BA Miles, and was awarded a free companion fare thanks to using the right kind of charge card. What better than a winter break in Cape Town, travelling Club World? He understands that availability is limited, so he told BA he could travel sometime between October and February.

"Unbelievably, the only offer available was two first-class fares from 18 to 26 October. One date in five months – and I was even asked to pay £445 in charges for each seat! No wonder they are giving those miles away free."

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