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'David versus Goliath' in plane ticket battle

File picture: Francois Mori / AP Photo.

File picture: Francois Mori / AP Photo.

Published May 24, 2020

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A Durban pensioner is embroiled in a David versus Goliath battle with one of South Africa’s largest travel retailers.

Vincent Pillay, a former football hero who in his heyday played against the likes of Kaizer Motaung, the founder of Kaizer Chiefs FC, has asked Flight Centre for a refund after a trip booked to Toronto, Canada for his wife on February 10, was cancelled by the Air France-KLM airline. But the travel firm, which revealed last month that its annual turnover was R5.5 billion in sales, has refused to budge on the request for a refund of R28 810, saying it can only pay out when it receives a refund from the airline.

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Sandhini Pillay, 72, was booked to travel on June 2, with family members to visit her wheelchair-bound nephew, but the flight via Amsterdam and Paris was called off as the coronavirus pandemic spread, disrupting global travel.

Pillay, a 74-year-old retired school principal, said he was not comfortable with his wife travelling next year because of her health issues and the fact that there was no Covid-19 vaccine.

“We are worried about travel in this uncertain time, and felt there’s no reason for her go abroad while the possibility of picking up the virus is real, which is why we asked for a refund on the (R16 615) ticket and (R12 195) hotel fees,” said Pillay from Isipingo, south of Durban.

But despite a flurry of emails, the request was denied. Pillay was offered a travel voucher for a trip at a later date which had to be confirmed immediately.

Flight Centre acknowledged that the effects of Covid-19 on customers has been extensive. “We know our customers are facing challenging times ahead and really empathise with their frustration at having to cancel travel plans and accept vouchers,” it said.

“According to the Consumer Protection Act, the customer has the right to choose between a voucher or a refund. We acknowledge that right. Flight Centre makes payment to a third-party supplier to confirm a travel service on behalf of a customer and therefore cannot refund monies we have not received in return from that third-party supplier.”

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Flight Centre has been instructed by Air France-KLM to issue a voucher/credit by June 2021 which must be redeemed within one year from date of issue. “Should no travel take place within 12 months, a refund application may be submitted.”

Vincent and Sandhini Pillay.

Air France-KLM could not be reached for comment.

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“We understand that travel remains uncertain and understand that Mrs Pillay has very real concerns related to her health. Unfortunately, we cannot refund the customer if we have not received this refund from the supplier,” Flight Centre said, adding that Pillay and her travel group did not take up optional travel insurance.

On May 15, Bloomberg reported that in a policy reversal that Air France-KLM would offer clients refunds on tickets or a voucher for a future flight worth 15% more than the initial ticket value. Thousands of flights have been cancelled in Europe since the travel ban was put in place to curb the spread of the virus.

Consumer activists have pressured EU governments to ensure airlines honour refunds for passengers, and the EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner Didier Reynders insisted airlines offer customers a choice between refunds or vouchers, insisting that vouchers violate EU rules on passenger rights.

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MEC inundated with complaints

On Friday, Nomusa Dube-Ncube, the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, said her office has been inundated with complaints from consumers via its Consumer Protection Unit since the lockdown on March 26.

“Airlines and travel agencies are giving consumers the options to rebook. They are also giving consumers vouchers without the option of the refund. Critically, we have also noted that the validity of these vouchers differs from between one and two years. Unfortunately, this compels consumers to schedule unplanned trips.

“This has been a bone of contention,” she said.

She said her office is engaging with the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman (CGSO) and has been guided by the Consumer Protection Act, which addresses consumers’ right to cancel bookings and reservations.

Dube-Ncube said that the ombudsman has stated that the interpretation of the CGSO is based on the intention behind the regulations that consumers are entitled to full refunds when they cancel due to the travel bans and restrictions on gatherings.

“Our view is that the pensioner (Pillay) and other consumers should not be penalised due to travel bans and restriction. We are therefore against the widespread unfair practice of imposing a blanket no refund, vouchers policy as it is not in line with the Consumer Protection Act,” she said.

The MEC said she was aware that the National Consumer Tribunal (NCT) is also investigating refunds relating to travel related complaints.

“While the NCT is doing its work, we are moving with speed in establishing a Provincial Consumer Court. We are also taking up the issue involving the pensioner. The court will strengthen our campaign focusing on zero-tolerance against consumer exploitation.”

Pheto Ntaba, spokesperson for regulatory body, the National Consumer Commission, in Pretoria, said suppliers are encouraged to make it easier for consumers to exercise and enjoy their rights because of Covid-19.

In respect of Pillay’s trip, Ntaba said both the agent and the airline as suppliers were liable, and that complaints of a similar nature can be directed to the CGSO.

Phenias Ncube, spokesperson for the Western Cape Office of the Consumer Protector, said it has also received “a sizeable number of these complaints and has managed to resolve almost all, with some consumers electing to take vouchers and others electing to get their money back”.

“In some instances, the airline, hotel or cruise or tour operators agreed on a date to pay the refund.”

Two weeks ago, the chief executive of the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (Asata), Otto de Vries, said airlines were experiencing an influx of requests for refunds.

“While we, as a representative of the travel agencies which have been significantly impacted by Covid-19 and the associated travel bans are sympathetic to the issue, we believe that the delay or refusal to refund passengers is in contravention of the Consumer Protection Act,” he said.

Sunday Tribune

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