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."

News
news
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
New Articles
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Sport
sport
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all