There are probably very few Australians who’ve not been caught out by cancelled flights, cruises, tours and accommodation bookings in the 18 long months since the coronavirus pandemic first arrived.
And as the newer, more infectious Delta variant of COVID triggers another wave of lockdowns and border closures, consumer group CHOICE says it’s past time for stronger protections to be in place.
The independent body is calling on federal and state governments “to fix Australia's travel cancellation chaos through implementing seven urgent reforms.”
“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, thousands of Australians had money tied up in bookings with travel and tourism businesses located in Australia and overseas,” CHOICE says.
“The announcement of the pandemic and associated public health measures meant that these plans fell into disarray. As consumers sought to change their plans or obtain refunds, many experienced stress and frustration.”
A survey of over 4,400 Australians whose travel plans were disrupted by COVID-19 revealed that
- fewer than one in five (17%) received a full refund, and even that process often took many months
- many consumer who've received credits or vouchers say they're unlikely to be able to use them
- nine out of 10 respondents say Australia’s laws should be changed to make it easier to get your money back
CHOICE is proposing a set of reforms to “improve consumer protections for people who book travel or tourism services that cannot be provided due to circumstances outside the control of the business and consumer.”
Or, in plain English, “make it easier to get a refund when a service isn’t provided.”
A centrepiece of the seven-point package is the establishment of an independent travel and tourism industry ombudsman, similar to those in place for the telecommunications and financial industries.
“All airlines, along with large travel and tourism suppliers, large travel agents and large intermediary companies should be required to participate in the industry ombudsman scheme,” CHOICE explains.
The ombudsman should:
- be initially established and funded by government with a plan for transition to an industry-funded model;
- be governed by a board that includes equal numbers of consumer and industry representatives and an independent chair;
- be responsible for investigating complaints against travel and tourism businesses;
- have the power to issue determinations and decisions which industry are obliged to act on; and
- be required to comply with the Benchmarks for Industry-based Customer Dispute Resolution Schemes
Other planks in the CHOICE proposal call for
- a mandatory industry code for all airlines and large travel providers
- changes to make it easier for people to receive refunds
- minimum voucher/credit rights
- a mandatory information standard at time of booking
- an ACCC market study into the travel and tourism sector
- a national travel restrictions website
“It’s been an extraordinary time in the travel industry,” relates CHOICE’s Andy Kollmorgen.
“Trying to sort out travel cancellations and refunds has often involved punishingly long waiting times on the phone and a wearying game of pass the buck: airlines, accommodation providers and other travel businesses tell customers to take it up with their travel agent or third-party booking site, who then send customers back to where they started.”
“In many cases, it wasn't clear to who had the money – the travel provider or the booking agent, and they often seemed to be battling it out between themselves, leaving customers in the dark.”
Click here to download the CHOICE report and proposals.