Hundreds of Qantas customers have written to the national consumer watchdog in recent weeks, sparking a reprisal of the airline’s handling of grounded flights.
On Friday, ACCC chief Rodney Sims slammed Qantas over what he felt to be a miscommunication of passenger’s legal rights, stating that the airline only “encouraged these customers to cancel bookings themselves in order to receive a credit when many would have been eligible for a refund”.
While the airline’s refund policy currently notes that customers booked on cancelled services are entitled to either a flight credit or a refund, Sims says that the company “did not communicate clearly with customers about their rights and, in a large number of cases, simply omitted they were entitled to a refund”.
After weeks of pressure from the agency, Qantas said that it has sent communication to passengers to clarify this.
“We didn’t think it was unclear to begin with, but we’ve written again to a group of customers in the window of time that the ACCC is concerned about to make sure they know what alternatives are available to them,” said a spokesman for the airline.
“We hope the ACCC is not inferring that we haven’t done the right thing by our customers, particularly given the efforts we have made to manage an exceptional level of upheaval.”
With Qantas reintroducing service to many parts of Australia as pandemic restrictions begin to ease, a different spokesman reported in May that over 80 per cent of rebooked customers have chosen to accept credit vouchers.
“We’ve received great feedback from customers about how straightforward it is,” the spokesperson said.
Yet the company’s travel credit policy looks set to come under the legal microscope – with Australian law firm Slater and Gordon now seeking registration for a class-action lawsuit.
The registration page lists a number of potential liabilities, including:
- Relying on blanket ‘no refund’ clauses in terms and conditions;
- Inducing customers to exchange their tickets for restricted travel vouchers; and
- Continuing to offer and accept payment for international flights.
The firm’s website states that the airlines have “presented [travel credits] as an act of generosity, however many customers would have had greater rights had they held on their ticket than if they exchanged it for a restricted travel voucher.”
A lengthy wait for refunds
At the same time as many support staff have been stood down in the wake of the pandemic, the company has had to adapt to the unprecedented situation of rebooking, refunding, or crediting what it said has amounted to “well over a million Qantas tickets”.
While Qantas said that “most refunds are being processed within six weeks”, disgruntled customers have taken to social media to vent their frustrations, with many reporting delays of 10 weeks or more.
On its part, Qantas attributes the delays in processing refunds to underlying factors.
“Processing a refund is more complicated [than a travel credit or rebooking] and the majority cannot be automated as many are complex – for example, if an itinerary is partially flown or includes codeshare flights.
“In addition, many refunds touch other intermediaries such as travel agents and financial institutions like banks and/or Visa/Mastercard, which can slow down the refund process.”
Qantas has been reached for comment, but at the time of writing has not responded.
How has the refunds/credit policy changed over the course of the crisis?
After cutting the bulk of domestic and international service in mid-March, both Qantas and Jetstar customers were given the option to cancel flights and receive the full value as a travel credit. This offer was made available for new and existing bookings made until 31 March 2020, covering travel up to 31 May 2020.
Further changes were introduced prior to that deadline, with the policy extended to cover travel through 31 October. The new protocols complicated matters somewhat, tagging different booking and travel windows to domestic and international service.
For example, domestic passengers were given the option of one free flight change, while international travellers were not.
Qantas and budget subsidiary Jetstar also took different tacks at this point – with travel credits issued for the latter redeemable only across a single subsequent booking. Though the group recently changed this policy to allow credit “splitting” on both networks from mid-June, this has flared tensions with much of its low-cost base in recent months.
How has Jetstar fared?
The situation seems to be equally dire over at the budget subsidiary, with one popular new Facebook group forming to “track Jetstar cancellation reimbursements”.
Australian Aviation spoke to 23-year old Jonica Wells, who recalls a harrowing story of booking aboard the subsidiary’s newly-reopened Melbourne-Newcastle leg.
Wells recounts that the airline rescheduled the service before presenting her with the option of either accepting the new flight online, or calling the customer support helpline to pursue a credit or refund.
Unable to travel at the stated time, she said she spent two hours on hold before being cut off.
“Just after the two-hour mark I finally heard a dial tone and the muffled sound of someone’s voice. Then the line dropped,” she said.
“I was then asked to rate Jetstar’s service on a scale of 1 to 5.”