There are a lot of things we took for granted pre-COVID, the ability to travel anywhere in the world and quickly now seems like a mirage. Aircraft are grounded and in Australia, at least, you need to seek permission from the Department of Home Affairs before you can leave the country. Pure tourism, travel for the sake of travel is no longer on the table.
In February it was clear that the travel industry was going into a tailspin. Thanks to COVID-19 countries began the process of going into lockdown, flights were cancelled, people were stranded a long way from home.
Neos Kosmos interviewed travel agents in February and March to find out how they were coping. They were in uncharted waters, stressed out and trying to get stranded people home. Quarantine and isolation became the new buzzwords.
The people came home, airlines grounded staff and aircraft. The struggle now is to get refunds or vouchers for cancelled journeys and excursions. Travel agencies are caught up in this struggle.
Earlier this month Rod Simms of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said in an interview with ABC News that there was no overarching right to a refund if a flight is cancelled. Under normal circumstances there were guarantees for a refund under the nation’s consumer laws.
The guarantees came into force in the case where a service or product did not work as it was supposed to – in normal circumstances the customer had a “right to a repair, refund, replacement, cancellation or, in some cases, compensation.”
In the case of flight cancellations due to COVID-19 things are less clear because the cancellations were the direct result of government restrictions.
“In the consumer guarantee laws, there’s a clause that says if what’s happened is completely beyond the control of the company, then those guarantee rights don’t apply,” Mr Sims told ABC news. “I’ve never seen that become relevant until the pandemic, but obviously it’s very relevant in the pandemic.”
He is then quoted as saying that when you buy an air ticket you “enter into a contract with the airline or travel agent to supply the service, and general contract laws apply.”
Mr Simms also said that “…If you booked through a travel agent, they’re ultimately responsible for your booking and pursuing a refund from the airline on your behalf.”
The MD of Touchdown Tours and Cosmos Tours Jaqui Preketes begged to differ with Mr Simms on his definition of the role of the travel agent.
“When you book with a travel agent, you are entering into a multi-level contract. Your contract with your travel agent is that your agent will work on your behalf, co-ordinating your booking, making your arrangements, and working within the rules and regulations set out by airlines and other suppliers to ensure you get the very best possible experience based on your needs and requirements, “Ms Preketes told Neos Kosmos.
Based upon the reported interview with Mr. Simms, Ms. Preketes agreed that the role of the travel agent certainly included acting on the client’s behalf to pursue the said refunds, but only if the airline’s policy allows for it, as agents can only work within the guidelines set out by the airlines themselves.
She said the travel agent had fulfilled their obligation to the client in sourcing the right airfare, providing the options for the client to make the right choices and researching hotels and tours that were relevant to the client.
In his interview with the ABC, Mr Simms said: “If I enter into a contract with you to do something and I pay you money to do it and then you don’t do it, then the contract is frustrated — that’s the legal term.”
Ms Preketes said the party of the contract that was “frustrated” (that the client could not avail themselves of the service) was between the client and the airline as it is ultimately the airline is the one that is no longer offering the service.
“It is not the travel agent’s responsibility to actually fly the passengers from A to B. This is why travel agents can only work with the policies set out by airlines and other suppliers,” she said.
The airlines, as much as governments, businesses and individuals were constantly revising their policies in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By way of example, she said, to date Virgin Australia was “already up to Version 20 of their policies, and Qatar is up to Version 17″.
She said the fact that airlines had shed staff while dealing with an unprecedented scenario was another reason why the issue of refunds was taking such a long time to address.
“This means that, for the millions of refunds that are being applied for, there are in fact, far fewer staff to handle the mass influx of cancellations that have been coming through,” said Ms Preketes.
Helen Vassos, the director of World Aviation Services operating in Greece and , who is currently based in Adelaide, said that there were three main options that European based airlines considered in recompensing clients:
♦ Rebooking. This option is usually fully flexible and free of charge. The passenger needs to keep the number of the original ticket. Certain restrictions do apply such as the revised travel dates being within the validity of the ticket. If the same booking class is not available then the fare difference may be refunded to the client;
♦ The ticket may be exchanged for a travel voucher that would be valid for up to a year after the voucher is issues and for the total cost of the ticket. Some airlines may allow for the travel voucher to be transferred to a different name. The voucher is non-refundable; and
♦ A full refund is available if the flight was cancelled by the airline and any penalties waived. In cases where the flights were not cancelled by the airline then a request for refund will be considered under the fare rules. This usually results in a partial refund.
The MD of Grecian Tours Kon Kavalakis told Neos Kosmos that the problem was further complicated by the fact that each airline had its own policies.
“As travel agents we abide by airline policy. Every airline has issued its own COVID-19 policy,” he said. “These are unprecedented times and laws and regulations need to be flexible.”
He added that most people who had booked to travel overseas in June and July would have received their refunds or credit to travel at a later time.