It's no exaggeration to say that the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the travel plans of every Australian.
Qantas and Virgin Australia have suspended all regular international flights and culled domestic routes, most states have all but closed their borders to interstate travellers, while the Australian Government has banned citizens who live in the country from jetting overseas.
Airlines were quick to assure worried would-be travellers that their bookings could be converted into travel vouchers and held as credit against future trips.
However, this doesn't rule out claiming a refund on a Qantas or Virgin Australia booking. Getting a refund on your ticket hinges on several factors, foremost among them being the reason for the cancellation – particularly whether you chose to cancel your booking, or the airline chose to cancel your flight.
Update: While Virgin Australia is in voluntary administration, the airline has temporarily paused the issuing of new travel credits and refunds. In the meantime, affected customers can still lodge these requests.
Travel vouchers vs refunds
Qantas and Virgin Australia both provide passengers with the option of turning their booking on a forthcoming flight into a travel voucher, regardless of whether their ticket would usually attract a cancellation fee or even not permit any changes.
At the time of writing, travel vouchers are offered for flights up until July 31 (Qantas) or June 30 (Virgin Australia).
When it's time to rebook your trip, you'll obviously need to pay any difference between your original fare and the fare charged for your new journey.
Given the current economic difficulties facing many Australians, and the fact that not everybody will be rushing back into the skies once this is behind us – experts forecast a slow recovery stretching through to 2023 – it’s understandable that many people would prefer a refund rather than travel credit, so that they can put their money back into their bank account.
This has become a hot topic of late, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) saying that cash-strapped airlines can't afford customer refunds if they are to survive a prolonged pandemic shut-down.
“The key element for us is to avoid running out of cash, so refunding the cancelled ticket for us is almost unbearable, financially speaking,” IATA Director General Alexandre De Juniac said earlier this week, stressing that customers should accept vouchers.
IATA claims that around US$35 billion of tickets already issued worldwide would be due for a refund by the end of June, and that vouchers or a delayed refund was all airlines could offer.
Refunds for cancelled flights are mandated by law within the European Union, and the US Department of Transportation now requires carriers to refund tickets for flights they cancel or a significant schedule change which is not acceptable to the passenger.
Qantas and Virgin Australia are both obligated to give you a refund if the airline cancels your flight and can't offer a suitable alternative, although you’ll have to ask for that refund.
Getting a refund on Qantas flight bookings
Outside of any fare rules that may normally allow for a refund, claiming your money back on Qantas domestic and international flights is possible under some circumstances.
These are outlined in the airline’s Conditions of Carriage. Those relevant here include the following, when Qantas…
- is unable to carry you on a confirmed reservation
- delays your flight to the extent that you must cancel your travel plans
- makes a “significant change” to your flight’s scheduled timings, and no other flights are acceptable to you
- cancels your flight and cannot offer you a suitable alternative replacement.
A “significant change” means “a change that significantly impacts you and your travel plans”, without having a defined number of hours (or days) applied.
Provided any change to your travel plans doesn’t suit you, and you don’t accept any other flights offered, you could well be entitled to a refund.
If you believe you qualify for a refund under the above, Qantas suggests you contact its Customer Care department.
Refunds when Qantas hasn’t cancelled your flight
If your flight remains scheduled but you’ve chosen not to travel, getting your money back will depend on the fare rules of your ticket. If the fare you booked was non-refundable, that condition remains in place.
However, your money isn’t lost: if your flight is scheduled to depart before July 31 2020, you can instead ask Qantas to convert the price you paid into a travel voucher, which can be used towards a future booking for flights until December 31 2021.
Any normal change fees will be waived when using these travel vouchers, although if your new flight is more expensive than the price you originally paid, you’ll need to cover the difference.
These flight credits must be requested by April 30 2020 via the Qantas website, or via your travel agent, if you used one.
For flights departing in May through July, means you can’t wait and see whether your flight gets cancelled – which could then entitle you to a full refund, with the travel voucher as a ‘backup plan’.
If you don’t plan to travel but your flight remains scheduled, it’s best to request that voucher now, while the option is available.
Flights scheduled to depart after July 31 2020 currently remain subject to normal fare rules.
Getting a refund on Virgin Australia flight bookings
Like Qantas, Virgin Australia opens the door to cash refunds when the airline changes or cancels the flight you’ve booked, even on ‘non-refundable’ fares.
However, you won’t be immediately offered a refund – here are the steps to get there.
- At first, if your flight is disrupted, Virgin will move you to the next available Virgin Australia flight to the same destination, without charge.
- If the new flight is not suitable to you, you may then be transferred onto a different flight, which may include services operated by other airlines, in the case of international flights.
If these arrangements still remain unsuitable, you can then request a refund (or a Travel Bank credit) by contacting the airline, or your travel agent.
Refunds when Virgin Australia hasn’t cancelled your flight
Trying to cancel your flights even though they’re still operating? Take a look at the fare rules of your ticket to confirm whether you’re eligible to cancel your flight and obtain a refund, as may be permitted on some higher-priced itineraries.
Otherwise, Virgin Australia is currently offering free cancellations for all passengers with flights booked for travel up until June 30 2020, when requested via the Virgin Australia website.
You won’t receive a cash refund, but you will receive a travel credit, which can be used towards a new flight booking at a later date. You also won’t be charged a cancellation fee, even if you’d normally be billed for one in line with normal fare rules.
Alternatively, you can request a change of date or destination without incurring a change fee, although any fare difference between your current ticket and the new itinerary will still apply.
Bookings for flights departing after June 30 2020 currently remain subject to normal fare rules and conditions.
Also read: Virgin Australia unlocks free flight changes
Airline refunds under Australian Consumer Law
With both Qantas and Virgin Australia offering refunds where plans are disrupted by the airline, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) confirms that when a cancellation is instead made by a passenger, this is generally treated as a “change of mind”.
This includes changes or cancellations stemming from concerns about the coronavirus, says the ACCC.
Even in normal circumstances, “consumer guarantees (which can entitle customers to remedies including refunds) do not apply if you got what you asked for but simply changed your mind … or had no use for (your purchase.)”
Furthermore, “if your travel is cancelled due to government restrictions, this impacts your rights under the consumer guarantees,” which is where airline policies on refunds instead come into play.
“The ACCC (still) expects that you will receive a refund or other remedy, such as a credit note or voucher, in most circumstances. If you receive a credit note or voucher, it should have an expiration date which is long enough to allow you to use the credit note or voucher.”
Additional material by David Flynn