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Calls for guaranteed compensation for delayed and cancelled flights, as holiday test looms

Airlines are facing calls from consumer advocates to guarantee compensation for flight delays and cancellations, as Australians head off for long weekends, school holidays and footy finals.

The peak travel period follows months of post-pandemic mayhem, and the nation's biggest carrier Qantas this week reassuring customers it's sorting out its issues, while warning its performance would be tested in coming weeks.

Erin Conlon and her two sons were among the 4,000 Jetstar customers affected by flight cancellations to and from Bali this month. 

"While we were there it was amazing, but the flights really put a dampener on what you remember," Ms Conlon said.

"Customers weren't at the forefront of the treatment that we got."

On the way over, the family's direct flights from Adelaide were cancelled and rescheduled two days later, with an overnight stopover in Melbourne.

Cancelling their entire holiday wasn't an option, and Ms Conlon was also unsure of her rights to a refund.  

"We weren't given any particular options for additional flights including to make up for our lost days there," she said.

At the end of their shortened holiday, Jetstar cancelled their direct flights home.

The family was instead flown to Adelaide via Sydney and Melbourne, turning what should have been a 5.5 hour flight home into 24 hours in transit, sleeping in airports. 

To add insult to injury, Ms Conlon said despite being delayed in Sydney for six hours, Jetstar wanted to sting them $45 to store their bags in a locker.

"Which I didn't really want to pay. I was a little bit upset at the time because of the wait that we had," she said.

In Australia, it's up to airlines to decide whether customers are eligible for compensation or a refund.

Policies differ between airlines and cover situations where the carrier is at fault.

Qantas and Virgin include meal vouchers for flights delayed by at least two hours, and pay up to $200 and $220 respectively for overnight accommodation.

Jetstar customers have to wait at least three hours before getting a meal voucher, and get up to $150 for overnight accommodation. 

Regional Express will provide food or drinks if available after a 90-minute delay, but its website states it won't cover the cost of overnight accommodation. 

Carriers also don't guarantee flight timetables and consumer law only states services should be supplied in a reasonable time.

Ms Conlon said she will be hundreds of dollars out of pocket after she receives compensation from Jetstar. 

She doesn't think that is fair.

"People should be protected to be able to go on holidays and know that if something goes wrong, that they're able to either rearrange their holidays to something that is reasonable or be reimbursed appropriately."

Stories like Ms Conlon's have become more common in recent months. 

Airline social media pages have been flooded with complaints from customers.

On-time performance in Australia in July — which included the winter school holidays — was the worst on record since data collection began in 2003, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) latest domestic airline monitoring report.

Just 55 per cent of flights arrived on-time, much worse than the long-term average of 81.9 per cent.

Virgin cancelled 14.7 per cent of flights in the first week of the July holidays and Qantas cancelled 6.7 per cent, according to the ACCC.

Globally, Australian airports have been near the bottom of the ranking of around 600 for on-time performance, according to aviation analytics company OAG.

Jodi Bird, from CHOICE's money and travel team, said the last couple of years have exposed holes in Australian consumer law when it comes to travel. 

"CHOICE has seen that the existing consumer protections really haven't held up and protected Australian travellers," Mr Bird said.

"The problem with the existing travel protections is that they don't mandate things like telling people what they're entitled to, or when they're entitled to a refund.

"There's a lot of information that can be provided to people to tell them what the existing consumer protections are."

One example, he said, is airlines telling people they can get a credit when they are actually also entitled to a refund. 

"There's also scope for actually improving the existing consumer protections," Mr Bird said.

"We're really falling behind countries like the UK, the EU, even New Zealand, or even in countries like Indonesia, where we've seen that there's a level of compensation that we just don't have in Australian consumer law."

What rights are there for travellers overseas?

The European Union's denied-boarding compensation scheme provides clear-cut compensation for flight delays, cancellations and overbooking.

If your flight is delayed by at least three hours with less than two weeks' notice, you are entitled to between 250 and 600 euro, depending on the flight distance. 

You also get free meals and drinks, two telephone calls, faxes or emails. If your flight doesn't leave until the next day, you also get accommodation and transport.

Compensation is due if the airline is at fault and can be accessed if you're departing from an EU airport — or flying into an EU airport on an airline based in the EU.

There are also clear refund guarantees. 

The UK has similar laws, guaranteeing consumer compensation of between 220 and 520 pounds for delays of more than three hours, and 110 and 420 for cancellations.

In New Zealand, if the airline is at fault, you’re entitled to a reimbursement of up to 10 times the cost of the ticket, or the actual cost of delay, whichever is lower. 

Mr Bird said Australians deserve better and should look at adopting similar laws.

"In a similar aspect, we see that in the UK and the EU, for example if a refund is valid, then it has to be provided within seven days.

"In Australia at the moment, there's a lot of people waiting on refunds, and then they're getting it in several months, not seven days."

Well-resources industry ombudsman needed to take pressure off states 

CHOICE also wants a dedicated industry ombudsman to replace the airline-funded Aviation Consumer Advocate, which it gave a Shonky Award last year for being "little more than a forwarding service".

The ACCC and state consumer affairs agencies are instead reporting an increase in complaints related to airlines. 

For example, Queensland has received 222 complaints so far this year, compared to 98 in 2019.

Western Australia recorded 142 complaints in the 2018-19 financial year, and 422 last financial year.

South Australia dealt with 62 complaints in the year to September 19, and 5 in the year to March 2020.

"So CHOICE thinks that what we really need in the industry is a proper industry ombudsman to address people's complaints," Mr Bird said.

Travel credit system 'ethically wrong'

The ACCC continues to investigate Qantas over its travel credits scheme, which customers complained meant they were charged more for flights than if they'd used other payment methods. 

Jane Hasler and her husband were forced to pay hundreds of dollars more for flights to Uluru when using Qantas travel credits for a trip cancelled due to contracting COVID-19.

"We could see that seats were available for the same price. But it wouldn't allow us to book those seats. We had to book the more expensive seats," Ms Hasler said.

The fare difference was $600.

Ms Hasler's husband spent two hours trying to get through to Qantas before a customer service member eventually reduced the fare difference to $350. 

She wants the ACCC to crack down on airlines.  

"We really felt it was ethically wrong," she said.

"I'm 50 plus 10, and I have never ever come across customer service like that. And I was really quite angry about it."

Insurance claims on the up 

Matthew Jones, general manager of public affairs at the Insurance Council of Australia, said claims related to lost baggage and cancelled flights have increased.

One insurer, Allianz Partners, has reported claims relating to domestic cancellations jumped 279 per cent between April and June compared to the same period in 2019.

"Most policies will respond to things like lost luggage and cancelled flights," Mr Jones said.

"But of course, people just need to check that the premium and the Product Disclosure Statement covers those items."

For example, not all travel insurance policies will cover claims for flight delays, cancellations and lost bags if the airline is at fault. 

Mr Jones said as travel claims rose so would premiums.

"But as we settle into a post COVID environment, and the risks become more manageable, we should expect to see that reflected in the costs of premiums," Mr Jones said.

Consumers should also check insurance purchased through airlines. Ms Hasler bought insurance with Qantas but still had to pay extra for flights. 

Qantas warns of holiday test 

Qantas said its operational performance has continued to improve towards pre-COVID levels, with flight delays, cancellations and mishandled bag rates all falling in the first two weeks of September.

The airline said 71 per cent of flights arrived on time in the first two weeks of September, compared with 52 per cent in July.

Flight cancellations also reduced to just 2 per cent during the month so far, down from 7.5 per cent in June.

Qantas said more people were checking in luggage and mishandled bags were at 6 per 1000 passengers overall and at 5 per 1000 for domestic – which is at pre-COVID levels. 

“We understand how frustrating delays and cancellations can be for passengers, which were unacceptably but temporarily high post-COVID," a spokeswoman for Qantas said.

“When we cancel a flight we offer customers a range of options, including refunds, rebooking or a flight credit, and during significant delays we provide meals and accommodation to impacted customers."

The airline also warned its performance would be tested with school holidays during the peak travel period.

It has urged customers should arrive 90 minutes early for domestic flights and three hours ahead for international flights. 

Virgin Australia didn't want to comment and Rex Airlines did not respond. 

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