The Kulula website is vague on implications of a 'no show', says a reader. Photo: Matthew Jordaan

Pretoria - If you buy a return air ticket and for some reason don’t take the first flight, you could forfeit the return flight – or the rest of your onward flights – if you don’t reconfirm them with the airline.

I discovered this by accident on my recent journey from Joburg to Vancouver, Canada.

My Virgin Atlantic flight from OR Tambo to Heathrow having been delayed by almost six hours, I missed my connecting Air Canada flight to Vancouver and spent the night in London and had to fly to Canada a day later than scheduled.

When I called Air Canada the following week from Vancouver to confirm my flight home, I discovered that through some administrative or system bungle, I was reflecting as a “no show” for that flight to Canada, so all my return flights had been cancelled.

However, after an hour on the phone, they were all reinstated.

Worse drama was to follow, but that’s another story.

Patiwe Mokoena told Consumer Watch of her daughter’s similar experience with a domestic booking.

She’d bought her daughter Zenande a return ticket from Cape Town to Joburg on Kulula.

Zenande missed her flight and when she asked about getting the next Kulula flight, she was told she’d have to pay a sum she considered too much.

She found a cheaper flight on Mango and took it, having told the Kulula employee about this.

When Zenande later called Kulula’s call centre to ask about changing her return flight to Cape Town from a Saturday to Sunday, the agent told her she’d forfeited her return flight when she missed the first leg of her journey.

“Apparently she was supposed to reconfirm her return journey so as not to lose her ticket,” Mokoena said.

“We asked why the woman at the airport counter did not inform Zenande that she needed to confirm her return journey so as not to lose the ticket. Her response was that the call centre and airport counter were different entities, which I found strange.”

So mother and daughter went to OR Tambo airport that Saturday morning, the day of the scheduled return flight.

“On getting to the Kulula counter, we were told that the return part of the ticket was still valid but needed reconfirmation,” Mokoena said. “I argued that our call to the airline the previous night should have constituted confirmation.”

In the end, Zenande was accommodated on a Kulula flight back to Cape Town at no extra cost, albeit six hours later than the original flight she’d booked, which meant killing time at the airport for half a day.

Mokoena subsequently had a look at Kulula’s website and came to the conclusion that the implications of a “no show” were not sufficiently spelt out.

“All the website says is ‘a no show constitutes cancellation’.

“There is nothing specific about the fact that if you miss one leg of your journey, this affects the return journey as well,” Mokoena said.

“My argument is that I may use other means to get to my destination but as long as a flight I have booked and paid for in advance has not departed, they cannot deprive me of the right to that service. I would appreciate clarity on this.”

I sought it from Comair CEO Erik Venter.

I asked: If a passenger forfeits the return ticket if they do not take the initial flight, how is this justified in the absence of any direct communication with the affected passenger?

Venter said it was global practice in the aviation business model to cancel the return flights of passengers who had not checked in for their first flight.

“This policy is applied by legacy carriers such as British Airways and SAA, as well as by low-cost carriers.

“The logic is that if the customer has not travelled to their destination, then they are unlikely to return, and the airline will therefore attempt to sell this seat that will otherwise go empty.

“This policy has been scrutinised by the consumer protection authorities in the UK as well as in other jurisdictions and found to be an acceptable practice.

“Also, this practice, with limited refunds on cheap tickets, is critical to containing the escalation of ticket prices, which is ultimately to the benefit of consumers.”

Venter said the SA airline industry was working with the National Consumer Commission to formulate an industry code consistent with the Consumer Protection Act, “but also cater for the peculiarities of the airline industry business model”.

Of course, the CPA allows consumers to cancel advance bookings for a “reasonable” fee, and it doesn’t allow a company to deny a consumer a service which has been booked and paid for, so not surprisingly, one of the issues this code will cover is how the industry treats ‘no show’ passengers and the resultant cancellation of onward and return flights.

“The industry has submitted a proposal to the NCC on the content of such a code, but is still waiting for feedback,” Venter said.

“We expect that it will still be some time before a final code is approved by the NCC.”

I expect so, too.

In the meantime, Venter said, Kulula would do its best to accommodate returning customers who had not checked in for their first flight, or taken another Kulula flight to reach their destination, by accommodating them on the same flight on which they were originally booked, “although this might not always be possible”.

So here’s the advice, which applies to all airlines.

“Customers need to be aware that when they ‘no show’ for a particular flight, they must reconfirm their onward or return flight sectors with the relevant airline.

“This duty is stated in most airline conditions of carriage, but is occasionally not adhered to by the travelling public.” - Pretoria News