South Africa’s coronavirus response over the past week has seen unprecedented government vigour in locking down the country by protecting our borders, releasing funds for health care and stemming the influx of travel from high-risk countries.
Authorities are finally doing something about our porous borders, by erecting a 40km-long security fence along the Beit Bridge border post with Zimbabwe, and at the other end of the scale, turning away luxury cruise liners and banning travellers from countries including the US, the UK, Italy, China and Iran.
The government is also advising residents to stay at home if possible, avoid local and international travel, to self-isolate and to avoid large public gatherings.
These travel bans and restrictions have resulted in a flood of cancellations of flights, accommodation and events, but consumers have been urged to defer their plans in order to protect suppliers and their staff, who are not at fault but are at risk of losing their livelihoods.
While no one knows how severe the Covid-19 impact will be, one thing is for sure: it’s not business as usual. And the economic impact is likely to be the most devastating of all.
Some accommodation providers and airlines have stepped up by giving customers 100% refunds on their reservations, to their detriment. Others, not so much.
And last week, Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman (CGSO) Magauta Mphahlele moved to clarify confusion around rights and responsibilities relating to refunds.
Noting that consumer protection laws strike a balance between the rights of both consumers and suppliers, Mphahlele says her office empathises with businesses who stand to carry massive losses due to cancellations.
“Therefore, we urge all parties to act reasonably and fairly as well as work together to minimise the impact on the economy, individuals and households. We also hope that our government will consider some relief measures for suppliers to stem potential job losses and the collapse of the economy,” she says.
Citing the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), Mphahlele says ordinarily, where the act allows for full refunds on cancellations, consumers should rather postpone to minimise the impact on suppliers, and advises suppliers to treat each case on its merits and develop incentives to encourage consumers to accept those postponements where possible.
Section 17 of the CPA, which deals with the right to cancel bookings and reservations, allows suppliers to charge a reservation deposit and a reasonable cancellation penalty if a consumer cancels. But, it also does not allow for any penalty if the customer is unable to honour that booking, due to death or hospitalisation of the person for whom (or for whose benefit) the booking, reservation or order was made.
Mphahlele says it’s her office’s view that consumers are entitled to full refunds when they cancel due to the travel bans and restrictions placed on gatherings.
And that consumers cannot be charged a cancellation penalty and be refused a refund “irrespective of who initiates the cancellation due to the travel bans and restrictions on gatherings”.
She says many suppliers are offering consumers the option to postpone their bookings or reservations instead of giving them refunds, which raises questions of whether they have the right to do so and if consumers must accept that offer.
Section 47(4) of the CPA allows suppliers the option of making alternative offers to satisfy their promises to deliver, but the consumer has the right to consider whether or not they want to accept that offer.
If the customer is being unreasonable, the supplier has recourse but they cannot impose blanket no-refund, voucher or similar policies.
On Friday, SAA announced it had cancelled all international flights until the end of May. Acting chief Zuks Ramasia says: “In support of efforts by government to deal with this pandemic, and in the best interests of our crew, passengers and the public, we have decided to suspend all international flights until May 31, 2020. It is all our responsibility, not just the government, to curb further transmission of the virus.
“In addition, the increasing risks to our crew of contracting the virus including the possibility of being trapped in foreign destinations as a consequence of increasing travel bans cannot be ignored.”
Fair enough, but what about the refunds? No response from SAA to that question on Friday.
Another airline accused of flouting the CPA is Emirates.
Pierre du Plessis says on February 6, he booked two flights from Joburg to Istanbul: departure date April 9, to return from Athens to Joburg on May 3.
Emirates has now cancelled these flights, but are unwilling to refund the full amount.
“They’re offering me the option to rebook at a later date, receive a travel voucher or pay a hefty cancellation fee that amounts to almost 40% of the original price. Surely this flies in the face of CPA? If they can’t provide me with the service I purchased, I should be entitled to a full refund, no strings attached.”
Quite right: they cannot force customers to take up that offer. But the Emirates website says those with tickets issued on/before March 31 who are affected due to a travel ban, travel advisory, quarantine requirements, a mandatory lockdown or flight cancellation are “eligible for rebooking or travel voucher options”.
“Rebooking is permitted within the ticket validity without fee, applicable fare difference if any may apply,” it says, noting that these travel vouchers will be valid for 12 months, from date of issue.
“Affected customers, it advises, should contact their travel agent or Emirates office to request a travel voucher, customers who booked directly with Emirates can visit the travel voucher webpage and add “Refund request due to Coronavirus” in the comments section. And customers who booked with a travel agent must contact them directly for a rebooking and/or travel vouchers.
An Emirates spokesperson would not be drawn on the airline’s failure to abide by the CPA and referred me to a link on their website, which reflected its “stance on the matter”.
CGSO spokesperson Ouma Ramaru has advised customers with similar complaints about refunds and vouchers to contact their office at www.cgso.org.za or to call 011 781 2607.
* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.
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