Many airlines are continuing to issue 'non-refundable' tickets.

Pretoria - Almost two years on, South Africans are still being denied many of the protections in the Consumer Protection Act (CPA).

Take the right to cancel an advance booking, for example. The CPA says a consumer has the right to cancel an advance reservation, booking or order, and the supplier may impose a “reasonable” cancellation penalty.

Yet many airlines are continuing to issue “non-refundable” tickets.

All budget airline tickets are non-refundable, as are the cheaper tickets on the traditional airlines.

“Shelley” of Durban discovered this last week. She and her boyfriend had booked flights to Ireland to attend a wedding in May, paying a travel agent about R7 200 for each ticket.

Having been told last week that the wedding had been postponed, she e-mailed the travel agent about cancelling the tickets for a refund.

The agent responded: “Unfortunately the tickets are non-refundable, but what we can do is cancel the current booking and use the same ticket within one year of date of issue to book new dates.

“You will then have to pay any difference in fare and taxes and the amendment fee of R1 200 per ticket.”

The agent suggested that claiming on Shelley’s travel insurance was an option, “but you would have to give them a medical reason why you can’t travel”.

Travel insurance policy conditions vary, but most only pay out in cases where tickets are cancelled on medical grounds.

“Surely with the new CPA, there must be a way we can at least get a portion of the ticket paid back?” Shelley asked.

The travel agent ought to have disclosed to Shelley and her boyfriend that the tickets they were buying were non-refundable, and given them the option of booking more expensive tickets, which would have put money back in their pockets when they cancelled.

That’s the way it’s always been with airlines, internationally, and the CPA hasn’t changed that.

Your best bet, should you decide not to use your “cheapie” ticket, is to redeem it at later date. No, you won’t get your money refunded, and yes, it will cost you a bit extra, but at least you won’t forfeit the entire ticket.

The airlines argue that the low-cost aviation business model worldwide does not allow for refundable ticket sales, as such additional overhead costs make low-cost travel unsustainable.

In 2011, the former National Consumer Commissioner stated that the industry had to comply nevertheless with regard to locally issued air tickets, but nothing came of it, and when it comes to non-refundable tickets it’s business as usual.

But there is one instance in which consumers can claim a refund if they cancel their air ticket bookings – if they made those bookings in response to a direct marketing offer, such as e-mail sent by the airline advertising special fares.

The CPA’s Section 16 gives consumers the right to cancel a deal concluded as the result of direct marketing – for no reason or penalty – as long as they make that cancellation within five business days, in writing.

Granted, that’s a short window period, but it’s something.

The supplier – the airline – is required to “return any payment” to the consumer within 15 days of receiving that notice of cancellation.

In its “airfare specials” e-mails, Kulula includes the following in its terms and conditions, in its customary non-legalese: “Don’t forget about your right to cancel any booking made as a result of receiving this e-mail.

“You can cancel your purchase writing within five working days of paying for the booking.

“Once notice to cancel has been received, we will refund you the price of the ticket less any credit card charges.”

Some of SAA’s e-mailed flight “specials”, however, continue to state that flights are non-refundable, as in this e-mail I received from the airline last month: “Cancellation Anytime – Non Refundable except any unused regulated taxes and fuel levies are refundable.”

Buying an airline ticket is a gamble, given the many factors which could lead to you being unwilling or unable to take that flight.

You can mitigate that risk by paying for more for a “non-budget” ticket, or taking advantage of an e-mailed marketing offer from an airline which is willing to honour the CPA’s direct marketing cancellation provisions. - Pretoria News

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