File picture: Reuters
Is an airline allowed to cancel your return ticket and keep your money or is that theft?

Peter van Ryneveld wrote to me last week about a ticket mess-up that nearly cost his wife a trip to Spain and forced them to buy tickets on another airline. But Iberia Airlines is dragging its heels on the refund.

“My wife was due to fly Iberia to Madrid on December 27. Imagine our shock on arriving at the check-in counter (at OR Tambo International in Johannesburg) to find that, having renewed my credit card after making the booking, the card numbers had changed without my noticing it.

The attendant could not verify the booking and get into the airline’s booking system. My wife was denied boarding and flew out that night on another airline. We were able to obtain the old card numbers from my bank and she intended to verify those with the airline for her return trip on January 12. But on January 6 we received an email from the airline stating that her return booking had been cancelled.

“I contacted the airline via their online customer service centre to query the cancellation and was told that: ‘certain fares do not accept refund and have a number of limitations with regard to changes in the route or sequence of reserved routes. For this reason, if the journey does not start, our system automatically cancels the ticket’.”

When Van Ryneveld pointed out that they intended to using the return ticket and that Iberia had cancelled it, he came to a dead-end.

“Surely if the airline itself cancelled on us we should be entitled to some compensation, either a refund or a credit. I asked for a reference to the terms and conditions clause which entitles the airline to cancel. I have sent three messages to customer care asking for clarity. I have also sent two emails to the local manager who undertook to get back to me but has not. I have received no compensation nor any explanation as to what specific clause in the ticket contract gives them the right to do this.

“In my opinion this amounts to theft.”

Van Ryneveld hasn’t got anywhere with Iberia since last month, despite contacting its customer care numerous times.

So I contacted the communications department in Spain, telling them that the ticket was cancelled in South Africa, which meant Van Ryneveld should be refunded. Despite numerous requests for comment and promises to investigate, Iberia’s communications manager Consuelo Arias Hernández failed to explain why they were not refunding him.

Then I spoke to Trevor Hattingh, spokesperson for the National Consumer Commission (NCC), who told me: “When you purchase a ticket online, you are told to take your credit card with you when you check in. If the numbers had changed on his card, the airline would be doing their due diligence - it’s a security issue.

“Section 17 entitles a supplier to a reasonable cancellation fee. But this is not the way to treat a consumer. They cannot refuse to give any money back. Because the booking was cancelled for security reasons, he didn’t have the required paperwork/correct credit card, there would have to be a reasonable cancellation fee levied against this.”

The consumer didn’t cancel on the supplier so if the airline is not budging on the refund, Hattingh suggested taking it up with the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman. They would do an assessment and make a recommendation. If the airline still doesn’t want to refund the money, the matter would be referred to the National Consumer Commission, which would investigate the matter and take it before the National Consumer Tribunal. Its decisions are tantamount to a high court order, which means failure to comply is effectively contempt of court.

Trudie Broekmann, a specialist consumer law attorney, said the manner in which the airline has acted was in breach of section 54 of the CPA which requires “services to be performed and completed in a timely manner, and in a manner and quality that persons are generally entitled to expect”.

She said one of those reasonable expectations must be that if your credit card number changes, but you can prove your identity using a passport or ID, that your ticket is honoured by an airline - whether it’s for domestic or international travel.

“The remedy for consumers, where a service provider has failed to comply with these standards, is (i) that the consumer can require them to rectify the defect in their service (as the consumer and her husband requested both with the inward and outward flights), or (ii) a refund to the consumer of a reasonable portion of the price paid for the service, having regard to the extent of the failure.”

Broekmann said that in this case the failure in her view is 100%, so Van Ryneveld will be entitled to the full purchase price for the tickets back, along with interest at 9 percent per annum from the date on which the flights were cancelled.

Iberia has acted unconscionably, Broekmann said, by using unfair tactics against the consumer, which is prohibited in terms of section 40 of the CPA.

She said Van Ryneveld should report Iberia to the NCC for contravention of these two sections of the act and demand that a fine of 10% of their turnover be imposed -in addition to the right to be reimbursed.