Comment: ATAS must remain under close scrutiny

By admin

If the Australian Federation of Travel Agents believes the “naysayers” will be silenced, it would be well advised to take a step back and think again.

For the critics, doubters, trouble makers – call them what you will – are not about to go quietly.

A glance at the comments in response to our story on the AFTA Travel Accreditation Scheme (ATAS) last week will have given notice that opponents will continue to voice their issues and concerns. And voice them with some gusto.

It's hard to believe that in less than a month, years of talk will finally give way to the reality of reform of travel agent licensing.

On June 30, Travel Compensation Fund chief executive Glen Wells will effectively switch off the phones to any new consumer claims, padlock the doors of the TCF and state-based licencing of travel agents will come to an end.

In place of the current scheme will be ATAS, a voluntary membership body operated by the industry itself.

But while the talk may be over, debate has only recently begun, a fact illustrated by the aforementioned comments on the Travel Weekly website.

That it has taken until the 11th hour to stimulate true robust discussion over some aspects of industry reform is regrettable. But under the assumption of better late than never, the debate should be welcomed.

ATAS has been long in the making. Five and half years to be precise, and there is an argument that detractors should give the accreditation scheme time to succeed – or not as the case may be – rather than continually snipe and undermine what AFTA has undoubtedly worked hard to create.

It is an argument not without merit. Additionally, it has been said that opposition at this late stage is just barking at the moon. The TCF is going, a voluntary accreditation scheme is being launched and insurance policies designed to provide financial protection for consumers will not be a mandatory requirement for ATAS membership. Even St Jude Thaddaeus, the patron saint of lost causes, would find it a hard battle from here to alter the course of reform.

So with that certainty in mind, shouldn’t the industry throw its support behind the scheme and give it every chance to succeed? After all, AFTA has confirmed that an independent review will be conducted after 12 months so there is an opportunity for “fine tuning”, as accreditation general manager Gary O’Riordan described it.

Yet this is a crucially important restructure for the industry with some believing it could affect their livelihood. For that reason alone – and it’s a fundamental reason – it is only right that the scheme remains under intense scrutiny and agents are given every opportunity to air their views without being labelled as trouble makers who are out to cause mischief and confusion.

It is only by continually applying pressure that things change and complacency doesn’t set in.

Until recently, TravelManagers chairman Barry Mayo had been the only true vocal public opponent of ATAS, or at least some aspects of it, as he persistently raised concerns over the voluntary nature of consumer protection policies. Dogs with bones have nothing on Mayo, and credit to him for that. As more details of ATAS emerged – late in the day it must be said – other key industry figures have joined the debate.

Among the key issues is that some accredited agents will offer financial protection, and some won’t, which could result in confusion and, ultimately, undermine ATAS itself. Hopefully that won’t come to pass.

As AFTA chief executive Jayson Westbury assessed, the industry itself seems more worried about consumer protection than consumers themselves. And he may have a point.

Nevertheless, the risk of a backlash remains a real possibility in the event of an accredited agent or supplier collapse. How AFTA responds to such an event – and it will happen at some point – will be intriguing, not to mention crucial in the way ATAS agents are perceived by the public.

It almost goes without saying that hundreds of consumers being robbed of the washing machine they paid for does not have the same emotional pull of families being unable to embark on that holiday of a lifetime because an accredited travel agent has gone to the wall.

Make no mistake, the consumer media will be all over it when that scenario occurs. 

AFTA has a “brand risk strategy” for such a situation, the very existence of which indicates that it is well aware of the dangers posed by a collapse with no financial recompense for consumers.

But as Westbury has continually pointed out, ATAS was never intended to be a direct replacement for the TCF.

“We are not a compensation scheme,” he told media last week as he claimed he was unconcerned if one or 4000 agents took out the Travel Agent Intermediary Failure Insurance (TAIFI) that would protect consumers.

Be that as it may, AFTA represents travel agents and any event that negatively impacts its members must be the concern of the industry association and it will have to pick up the pieces.

Westbury is very comfortable in handling the media, but I have a hunch that he, and AFTA, may not be quite so relaxed when that first collapse does materialise.

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