Travel agent slugs Brisbane flood victim $2,000 in air travel cancellation fees

By danwarne, January 17 2011
Travel agent slugs Brisbane flood victim $2,000 in air travel cancellation fees

Although most airlines were quick to waive fees for passengers who needed to change their flights to or from Brisbane due to last week's floods (click here for our full list and all details), not all travellers were so fortunate.

Australian Business Traveller reader Troy C. was slugged an astonishing $2,000 in cancellation fees by West Australian travel agent Best Flights when he was unable to travel to Europe due to the Brisbane floods.

Troy contacted the Australian Business Traveller Investigator for our assistance, and explained the circumstances behind this booking and its cancellation.

Some months ago, I booked British Airways flights from Brisbane to London through a travel agent called Best Flights. I was due to fly out on the 21st Jan, with my wife following a few days later on the 25th.

Then the Brisbane floods hit in 'natural disaster' proportions. Although my house was OK, my wife and I are helping with clean up and relief for many people around us who were not so lucky — we could not contemplate going on the trip while our friends and family are coping with such devastation.

As most airlines announced policies to waive change/cancellation fees for travellers impacted by the Brisbane floods, I assumed British Airways would have a similar policy. I contacted my travel agent, Best Flights, and was told the cancellation would cost $1,000 per ticket — a total of $2,000 for my wife and I.

Furthermore, Best Flights says the refund will not be applied to my card for 12 weeks.

Best Flights was not at all helpful. I requested the fare rules from my travel agent several times and she is yet to provide them. Instead, she said, "it's a $1,000 cancellation fee, what more do you want?"

I have gone back on all documentation and cannot even find anything that mentions this fee. I emailed her enquiring if she believed it was a verbal contract but she hasn't responded to this question.

I booked the flights over the phone with this agent and at no time was advised of this excessively high cancellation fee.

As it stands, BA is still not budging in refunding the fares in full as its advice to agents is to provide refunds only if flights were cancelled. My understanding is that no flights were actually cancelled out of Brisbane as a result of the floods, meaning the policy provides no assistance to passengers whatsoever.

I would be very grateful for the help of Australian Business Traveller in negotiating with BA and Best Flights to see what can be done.

Troy C.
Brisbane, QLD

We forwarded Troy's email to our contact at British Airways' Australian PR agency and asked for a clarification of BA's policy, given that all other airlines were waiving change and cancellation fees.

BA responded:

"We understand that many people in Brisbane and throughout Queensland have been affected by the recent devastating floods. We are constantly reviewing our commercial policy for passengers impacted by the floods who have been forced to cancel or postpone their travel plans and our rebooking and refund policy has been aligned with our partner airline Qantas."

"British Airways has also contacted Troy C. directly about his booking and have advised him that they will be waiving the cancellation penalty for his and his wife's ticket. The cancellation penalty on the fare from British Airways that Troy booked was $300 each and the airline will refund this to him. Troy just now needs to contact his travel agent and ensure that this is processed."

BA advised its Australian travel agents of this change of heart shortly shortly after we sent Troy's letter for their investigation. Their advice to agents is as follows:

Airports Affected

Tickets issued by:
10 Jan 2011

Ticket Travel dates:
11-23 Jan 201

New Travel dates:
up to 14 days from original departure

Rebooking Allowance:
Lowest class in cabin

Destination Change on tickets:

Refunds Allowed:
Yes — excludes fees imposed by suppliers/third parties

Although it would have been preferable for British Airways to institute a fairer policy from the beginning, it was good to see British Airways do the right thing when the issue was raised. (You can see Qantas' policy for flood-affected travellers in our earlier article — Which airlines will waive fees for Brisbane flight changes?)

However, British Airways' statement that "the cancellation penalty on the fare from British Airways that Troy booked was $300" exposed the fact that the bulk of the Troy's $2,000 cancellation fee was being levied not by BA but by Best Flights.

We contacted Best Flights to ask whether the charge was correct and if so, whether it would reconsider its position given airlines were all waiving fees.

Best Flights responded, curiously starting its letter with "Without prejudice" — a phrase exclusively used by lawyers in court case settlement negotiations.

"As British Airways have reduced their charges, under the circumstances, Best Flights would like to offer [Troy] a reduced cancellation fee of $400 per person, as a gesture of goodwill."

While $400 per person is admittedly better than nothing (it's less than half of the original $1,000 cancellation fee, or a bit more than half of the $700 being levied by Best Flights), it still leaves Troy $800 out of pocket.

Where does Best Flights stand? According to a fine print terms & conditions page on its website "Best Flights will not take responsibility for clients who do not take out comprehensive insurance cover when booking to cover these eventualities" and "cancellation fees of a minimum of AUD $350 per person [...] in some cases, the loss can be the full amount you have paid."

However, Best Flights' hardball approach to a Brisbane flood victim shows that it's not always to the traveller's advantage to book through an agent. If Troy had booked directly with British Airways online he would have been able to cancel his flights to Europe without penalty.

Although Australian Business Traveller was able to mediate to assist in reducing Troy's cancellation fees from $2,000 to $800, it's still a very nasty sting for someone assisting friends and family in the recovery of flood-wrecked Brisbane.

Troy told Australian Business Traveller he remained unsatisfied with the reduction in cancellation fee from Best Flights, as they hadn't advised him of the high fees at any point, and he now intends to take his complaint further through Office of Fair Trading QLD.

Australian Business Traveller gave Best Flights another opportunity to reconsider its position on compassionate grounds, given all airlines were waiving their own change and cancellation fees.

Best Flights replied that it still insisted Troy pay the $400 per person cancellation fees but now they would donate the money to the Premier's Disaster Relief Appeal.

Eventually, some days after we started making enquiries with Best Flights, the company agreed to fully waive Troy's cancellation fees.

Agent cancellation fees are clearly a significant problem — many travel insurance policies cover unlimited cancellation costs except for travel agent fees, which are usually limited to a much lower limit, suggesting insurers aren't prepared to cover outrageously inflated cancellation fees either.

Australian Business Traveller advises readers to carefully read the terms and conditions on the websites of online travel agencies before booking flights through them — even if making a booking by phone.

About Australian Business Traveller Investigator

Have you been incorrectly billed while travelling, not received a product or service you expected, or otherwise been ripped off while you travelled? Send us your complaint and we will do our best to work with the airline, hotel, insurer, telco, or other business to investigate what went wrong and what can be done to rectify things for you.

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