One customer-unfriendly practice that the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) is intended to discourage is one that airlines worldwide routinely do.
It’s called overbooking and it works like this: they deliberately overbook their flights to compensate for the inevitable “no-shows”, in the hope that the “extras” will all find seats, the plane will take off as full as possible and everyone will be happy.
But as anyone who has ever been bumped off a flight will know, the airlines get their sums wrong from time to time, and that’s when people who’ve pre-booked and prepaid for a seat on a particular flight get told: “Sorry, we overbooked, but never mind, you can take the next flight home.”
So here’s what Section 47 of the act says about overbooking: if a company can’t deliver on a prepaid service at the agreed time, the supplier must refund the amount paid, with interest, and “in addition compensate the consumer for costs directly incidental to the supplier’s breach of the contract”.
It adds that a “defence” to such failure would be if the supplier offered to supply “comparable” goods or services to satisfy the customer’s request and the consumer accepted the offer.
Here’s what happened when Cape Town businessman Gordon Metz was bumped off an |SAA flight and tried to claim a refund of the “directly incidental” taxi fare he was forced to |pay because of his subsequent late arrival in Cape Town.
As a bit of background, Metz has commuted to Joburg on business almost weekly for the past 10 years.
At one time he flew with SAA exclusively |and held the coveted Platinum Card for four |years.
But after being treated with what he calls “awful arrogance” by the airline three years ago, he switched allegiance to a budget airline.
Occasionally, though, there are no other suitable flights available, forcing Metz to fly SAA.
And so it was that his travel agent booked him on SAA to fly from Joburg to Cape Town on September 22 at 7.20pm, at a cost of R2 800 – considerably more than what he pays for a seat on his budget airline of choice.
When he went to check in, in good time, he was told that he’d been bumped off that flight and booked on to the 8.15pm flight instead.
“I was forced to accept a seat on that flight, but this meant arriving late, missing the last shuttle bus from the airport into Cape Town and having to pay an extra R250 for a taxi home.
“I was particularly annoyed because I had chosen that 7.20pm flight even though it was about R600 more expensive than the later one, so that I could get to Cape Town Airport on time to get the shuttle home.
“Then I get bumped on to the cheaper, later flight anyway and miss the shuttle. So in effect, I am out of pocket for R850!”
Incidentally, Metz says he hasn’t once in three years been bumped off a budget flight, yet that was the third time out of his five most recent SAA flights that he’d been bumped off.
I advised Metz of the CPA provision and he duly wrote to SAA’s customer care division on October 5, enclosing his taxi receipt, providing his bank details and asking for a refund of the R250 fare.
Five days later he received an acknowledgment from one of the customer care agents.
“I have forwarded your e-mail to my team leader for advice and I will revert to you as soon as (I have) feedback,” she wrote.
That was the last he heard, despite sending two more e-mails, asking for a response.
“I guess that their tactic is to make it such a hassle for people… to get refunded that we just go away,” he told me.
“I don’t think that they should be allowed to get away with this cavalier behaviour.”
I e-mailed the airline’s acting head of group corporate affairs, Dileseng Koetle, asking whether SAA intended to refund Metz in terms of the CPA, and requesting a response within three days.
I received neither an acknowledgment nor a response.
So, on October 21, I asked again.
Finally, six days later, I received a one-line response from Koetle: “SAA adheres to the terms of the CPA, and will reimburse Mr Metz R250.”
I responded a few hours later: when would he receive that refund, and what procedure should others who’ve been bumped off flights and want to claim direct costs follow?
No response to date.
Metz, meanwhile, has still had no direct response from SAA to his refund request, first sent on October 5.
Appalling arrogance and discourtesy all around.
If you’ve attempted to claim any “directly incidental” costs after being bumped off a flight – since April 1 when the CPA came into effect – please let me know how your claim was handled by the airline concerned.