My team has been leading the campaign for change to consumer protections in the travel industry since April 2020.
When travel was first impacted by COVID-19, customers were irate at the handling of their bookings. Some travel agents approached my team to offer assistance to some of these travellers. As part of these conversations, many explained the operational flaws in the travel agent industry. COVID-19 had exposed that travel agents were financially disincentivsed to process refunds for their customers. These concerns led my team to study the industry to better assist consumers and bring about positive change moving forward.
Travel customers were first disappointed when airlines continuously rolled out new terms and conditions as the pandemic unfolded. In June 2020, we provided a comprehensive list to our local federal MP, regarding airlines breaching their Conditions of Carriage in response to COVID-19 travel cancellations. On 28th July 2020, the ACCC welcomed Etihad's decision to honour their original conditions. Was this a coincidence? I'm not sure...but it was a step in the right direction for thousands affected.
In September 2020, we received over 600 responses from our Facebook community regarding the state of delays across travel providers. The top 5 responses ranked by travel providers had an average turn-around time of 100 days for refunding customers. This information was provided to the ACCC for their consideration.
In October 2020, we sent a paper to each of the Consumer Affairs ministers around the country. This was also sent to CHOICE, Consumer Action Law Centre (CALC), the ACCC and other ministers upon request. The paper outlined the deficiency in Australian Consumer Law with regards to supplier cancellations occurring out side of human control. This was supported by the greater legal protection provided to EU travellers covered by comprehensive EU laws as well as USA airline passengers through the US Department of Transport.
In February 2021, we sent a comprehensive paper to the same stakeholders, outlining the flaws in the operational framework of the travel agent industry and how this has impacted Australian travellers. Some of the recommendations were:
Better protecting customer funds through trust accounts.
Adjusting the remuneration structure of agents to reduce their conflict of interest when servicing customers.
Providing customers with an itemised fee schedule before services are engaged. Penalties should apply for any hidden fees charged, such as mark-ups.
Establishing a set insurance commission for the sale of travel insurance products.
Increased transparency by providing customers with their supplier terms and conditions.
- Increased transparency by disclosing whether third parties, such as wholesalers, have been engaged in the transaction.
Establishing a mandatory Code of Ethics for travel agents.
Appointing an independent Commissioner, or the like, for oversight and complaint handling.
The ACCC's immediate response was documented here.
In April 2021, we ran a campaign where affected travellers coordinated visits to their local federal ministers. They spoke about their personal struggles in receiving a refund and reiterated our recommendations for change. I accompanied a number of constituents to their meeting with the Honourable Kevin Andrews. Following, Kevin put forward a parliamentary motion, which we welcomed. This enjoyed bipartisan support and was seconded by MP Michael Freelander.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, my team has assisted countless Australians to retrieve their travel funds. Either through the advice from other members of our Facebook community or through one-on-one consultation with my team. We have worked hard to highlight these issues in the media and have also spoken to many federal ministers to explain the depths of these matters. My team will continue to fight for the protection that is so desperately needed in Australia. We will not stop until we get there!