CHOICE lodges airline super complaint with the ACCC

6 December 2016 | Are we being fairly compensated for shoddy service?

Are airlines dodging the Australian Consumer Law?

We're guessing you've had your fill of airline delays, cancellations, unfair fees and other travel troubles. 

We have too, which is why CHOICE has sent along a "super complaint" to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), asking the regulator to take a good hard look at the sector (and for the sector to have a good hard look at its own practices).

A super complaint is a mechanism we use when the level of complaints in a given sector – and the related issues – have reached epidemic proportions. If you'd like to read the Fare Play? super complaint, you can download it as a PDF.

For starters, we're asking the ACCC to undertake a market study in order to shed light on an area of consumer services that has long been shrouded in secrecy.

When it comes to communicating the terms and conditions you agree to when handing over your money, for instance, the airlines leave most of us in the dark.

Within a ten minute online booking window, consumers are expected to read and understand a set of terms and conditions that would take the average lawyer an hour or more to digest. Fair? We don't think so. And we think the ACCC might agree.

Level with me

Who hasn't been given a fishy reason about why their flight has been delayed or cancelled? 

We want the airlines to hand over the details on such regular occurrences so the ACCC and consumer advocates like CHOICE can better gauge the full impact on consumers and consider whether the compensation on offer – such as it is – lives up to the requirements of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL).

Flights that don't depart on schedule, as we know, can have cascading effects, such as missing an event or forfeiting booking at the arrival destination that you just really couldn't afford to – not to the mention the mayhem that changing flight times can cause with other bookings, such as hotels and rental cars. 

And all of this without the guarantee you'll get fair compensation for the airline's mistake.

Our investigation also found that airlines charge a premium for travelling at peak travel times without any guarantee that you'll get what you paid for. We're asking the regulators: is leaving an hour or more later than scheduled a major or minor failure under the ACL?

We'd like to get some standards around this so Australian consumers can better exercise their rights, such as being able to demand a refund rather than accepting a credit when your airline doesn't take off on time.

Fees or penalties?

You might have been stung by Qantas' $200 flight change fee, or maybe even Virgin Australia's $550 international flight cancellation fee. It's impossible to know at the moment whether the fees airlines charge for changing or cancelling a booking bear any relationship to the cost of making the change – especially when the airlines end up selling your seat to someone else.

We've reviewed the fee regimes of Australia's four major domestic carriers and think almost all cancellation fees are excessive.

Right to a flight refund?

The industry also routinely sells flights with a "no refund" stipulation, yet the ACL says businesses can't impose "no refund" restrictions. Throughout the booking process a customer will repeatedly see text like "no refunds" or "refund not permitted".

Travellers are ill-treated in many such circumstances. We think it's time to pry open the industry's business model and get these consumer-facing issues out in the open.