TORONTO — Travellers who are out-of-pocket for airfares on cancelled flights amid the coronavirus pandemic want refunds. Airlines, forced to slash capacity and in many cases suspend all operations for a global health emergency that is beyond their control, and taking every step to conserve cash, are offering future travel credits and vouchers.
Agents are stuck in the middle, overworked with rebooking and cancellation requests, with few forward bookings coming in and facing a further financial hit when clients demanding refunds pursue chargebacks with their credit card company.
It’s a brutal situation brought on by a virtually global shutdown of travel and tourism.
Yesterday the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) issued a special statement, saying that while specific cases may get further analysis, in general, vouchers are appropriate in these extraordinary circumstances.
“The CTA believes that, generally speaking, an appropriate approach in the current context could be for airlines to provide affected passengers with vouchers or credits for future travel, as long as these vouchers or credits do not expire in an unreasonably short period of time (24 months would be considered reasonable in most cases).”
The CTA adds that legislation, regulations, and tariffs currently on the books “were developed in anticipation of relatively localized and short-term disruptions. None contemplated the sorts of worldwide mass flight cancellations that have taken place over recent weeks as a result of the pandemic.”
Striking a fair and sensible balance between passenger protection and airlines’ operational realities is key, adds the CTA. “On the one hand, passengers who have no prospect of completing their planned itineraries with an airline’s assistance and must find other ways of getting home should not simply be out-of-pocket for the cost of cancelled flights. On the other hand, airlines facing huge drops in passenger volumes and revenues should not be expected to take steps that could threaten their economic viability.”
The CTA says it will update its position as the coronavirus pandemic and its toll on the travel industry evolves.
Meanwhile agents are caught in the middle. A spokesperson for a Richmond Hill, ON agency, operating as a retailer and wholesaler for more than 30 years, says the situation is taking its toll …
“I am an IATA agency. I issue tickets with BSP through my GDS. Forms of payment are cash or credit card as allowed by that specific carrier. We follow the appropriate methods of screening since the credit card is not present (i.e. we get authorization from the agent, we run a special address check and if all passes, we trust we have done our due diligence to protect against fraud) and we issue the ticket. Each ticket has fare rules. Some tickets are fully non refundable. Others are refundable with penalties.
“Normally we process those refunds easily, as necessary. The money goes back to the same form of payment originally charged.
“Now with COVID-19, the airlines have asked us to not refund any tickets. No matter what. All tickets will become future travel credits.”
“WE AS THE AGENT HAVE NO OPPORTUNITY TO DISPUTE”
She continues: “This makes people angry. So they sit online and empower each other on how to charge back and essentially screw the travel agent now. They simply don’t want the credit. They want money back.
“So they call their bank and charge back their credit cards. The chargeback is processed through BSP where we as the agent, have NO opportunity to dispute, present a case or explain. They will debit those funds from our bank account.
“If there is not enough money in the account, we default on BSP and they revoke our IATA number and no longer issue tickets. Period.”
In the case of cancellations that result in refunds, agencies can also get dinged with commission recalls.
She says her agency got in touch with a few banks, to talk things though. “We called a few banks. Some are more on the side of the airline and agent but AMEX said the client had the right to get their money back and they will pursue it on behalf of the client.
“It’s far too easy. This is what I would consider force majeure. Doesn’t that count for anything?
“WHY WOULD A CLIENT BOOK WITH ME AGAIN IF THEY CAN GET FURTHER ON SOCIAL MEDIA?”
She adds: ‘Tour operators are also impacted because they listen to the client screaming on social media but when we ask for something they say no. Why would a client book with me again if they can get further on social media?
“These are all boomerang files. You think they have been dealt with and they all just come back to you full force. Soooo much work for absolutely nothing. To save face and pray we will be able to work in this industry when things settle down.
“No matter what we do right now we can’t seem to win.”