Frustrated travellers will soon be able to call upon an independent ombudsman when they feel that airlines aren't giving them a fair shake.
The National Airline Consumer Advocate, set up by the Federal Government with founding airline members Qantas, Virgin Australia, Jetstar, Regional Express and Tiger, will launch by July and "act as a facilitator and work with the major airlines to address the complaints of any customer who has been unable to resolve them directly", says the Department of Infrastructure and Transport.
So what will the advocate be able to do? According to the Department, he or she will "work with a committee comprising a representative from each of the founding airlines to get complaints resolved within 20 working days."
Details are sketchy about what what specific issues the advocate can examine, as there are no current terms of reference in place. So we'll suggest a few items for the advocate's to-do list:
- make clear compensation for passengers for late or cancelled flights
- end unreasonably high credit card surcharge fees
- impose refunds for late or lost baggage
- arrange simplified, standardised claim forms
- publish airline service standards for when things go wrong
By international standards, Australians already have a reasonable set of rights and remedies under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
Airlines are forbidden from some of the worst rorts from history and from abroad: hidden fees and charges, ridiculous small print terms & conditions, plain mis-selling, and so on.
Frequent travellers to Europe, though, will be familiar with the stronger (though less snappily named) EC Regulation No 261/2004, which guarantees compensation under circumstances that include delays of over two hours or cancellations.
For example, airlines cancelling a flight of up to 1,500km must pay each passenger €250 (A$318), while flights greater than 3,500km invokve the maximum passenger payment of €600 (A$763).
Passengers like those regulations because airlines are on the hook for the total cost of the inconvenience when they cancel flights, although the airlines often suggest the regs go too far. Looking into similar laws here would be a good start.
It's likely that the advocate is aimed at the low-cost end of the market, with Tiger and Jetstar probably squarely in Transport Minister Anthony Albanese's sights when he quipped: "Cheap fares shouldn't mean cheap treatment."
But with another option instead of legal action when the airlines get things seriously wrong -- and sometimes they do -- this advocate sounds like a sensible addition to the business traveller's toolbox.
What else would you add to the advocate's to-do list? What do airlines get seriously wrong, and which airlines are the worst at putting things right? Share your thoughts and experiences with your fellow AusBT readers in a comment below.