Dutch international airline carrier KLM and national travel retailer Flight Centre have not budged on a R28 810 refund requested by Durban pensioner Vincent Pillay despite growing pressure from government officials and the office of the European Ambassador to South Africa.
The office of the Minister of Tourism Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane and the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs Nomusa Dube-Ncube have entered the fray over Pillay’s battle for a refund to fund an eye operation at a hospital in Johannesburg once flights are allowed to resume.
A refund should be given within seven days and no more than 14 days, according to the European Union Commission.
However, Pillay, a former football great and principal at Clairwood Secondary, is being given the run-around.
He wants airfare and hotel fees totalling R28 810 from Flight Centre after paying for a trip to Toronto, Canada, for his wife Sandhini on February 10, which was cancelled by Air France-KLM following the Covid-19 travel ban.
Kubayi-Ngubane’s office said it would investigate once Pillay complained to the unit set up to handle such matters.
He has lodged a complaint with both the Minister and Kwazulu-Natal MEC responsible for tourism.
“I make a fervent appeal for intervention in our plight (together with hundreds of other disgruntled travellers) for investigation of the unfair policy of Flight Centre in their hotel bookings in foreign countries. A speedy cash refund on the total amount of R28 810 would help tremendously,” he said.
Spokesperson for Kubayi-Ngubane, Hlengiwe Nhlabathi, said the department does not negotiate with booking agents on behalf of individuals or groups regarding refunds, but complaints would be probed, particularly if efforts to resolve them by customers and travel bodies had failed.
MEC Dube-Ncube said she was pursuing the case of Sandhini Pillay (72) “whom we believe her rights have been violated”.
“Critically, we would have expected both Flight Centre and KLM to consider the fact that Mrs Pillay is a pensioner.
“Elders have the inherent right to life and should be treated with dignity at all times.
“They have a right to be free from abuse, exploitation and neglect,” she said.
“We are calling upon Flight Centre and KLM to pay back Mrs Pillay her R28 810.00,” the MEC said.
On Saturday, Frank Oberholzer, the head of information for the European Union in South Africa led by ambassador Dr Riina Kionka, said that EU passenger rights apply irrespective of the nationality/citizenship.
South Africa is the EU’s largest trading partner in Africa with travel to and from growing accordingly, and according to Statistics South Africa, the highest numbers of tourists visiting the country came from Europe.
What matters is the destination from departure of the flight and the operating air carrier,
Oberholzer adding that EU air passenger rights apply:
If the flight is within the EU and is operated either by an EU or a non-EU airline
If the flight arrives in the EU from outside the EU and is operated by an EU airline
If the flight departs from the EU to a non-EU country operated by an EU or a non-EU airline, and,
If not already received benefits (compensation, re-routing, assistance from the airline) for flight related problems for this journey under the relevant law of a non-EU country.
“It, therefore, appears that the second situation applies in this case,” he said.
Oberholzer said a passengers’/travellers’ right to get reimbursement in money was confirmed by the EU Commission two weeks ago.
“A directive of the European Parliament and of the council provides that, if a package trip is cancelled due to ‘unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances’, travellers have the right to get a full refund of any payments made for the package, without undue delay and in any event within 14 days after termination of the contract,” he said.
On Friday, KLM did not respond to several requests for comment.
It instead submitted a statement available on its website explaining that the crisis was caused by never before seen situations for airlines and their customers.
The statement added that the initial policy on vouchers or cash after 12 months changed on May 15 when KLM and its partner Air France (both airlines merged 14 years ago) have since adjusted their refund policy for flight cancellations.
“Concerned customers will be offered the choice of a voucher or a cash refund. “
“However, in view of the magnitude of this crisis and the number of cancellations, it may take longer to process these transactions,” said the statement.
On Friday, Flight Centre said that the refund was not being refused by the airline, it was available, but there would be delays in processing refunds.
According to the National Consumer Commission in Pretoria, both the agent and the airline as suppliers are liable for the refund.