AFTA faces new calls for trust accounts, welcomes new tourism minister

AFTA faces new calls for trust accounts, welcomes new tourism minister

AFTA is facing calls to strengthen its ATAS accreditation scheme with the use of trust accounts and clearer terms and conditions, among other qualms.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) made a submission to the Australian Federation of Travel Agents’ (AFTA) review of its ATAS accreditation scheme, claiming its recommendations would provide more protection for consumers and rebuild trust in the travel industry.

According to Victoria Roy, travel lawyer and spokesperson for the ALA, Australian consumer law failed to help Aussies get their money back when the global pandemic brought travel to a grinding halt.

“Reform to Australian consumer law is needed… until any reforms are made, stronger industry regulation will benefit consumers and help restore confidence in the travel industry,” Roy said.

In its submission, ALA called for clearer terms and conditions and trust accounts as an industry standard, which Roy said would also serve to protect consumer funds if a travel agent becomes insolvent.

Both issues are considered tricky to implement for travel agents, given the global nature of the travel eco-system and the variables of independent businesses which make up the sector.

Trust funds, or client accounts as they are known, are unpopular among many travel businesses as they are seen to fail in acknowledging the global nature of selling travel products.

In many cases, these accounts are redundant considering the money paid by consumers is usually passed from agents directly onto suppliers in order for a booking to be confirmed and therefore spends very little time in the hands of agents themselves.

It is also widely known that the majority of cases where consumers struggled to obtain refunds were a result of issues with suppliers rather than travel agents.

In fact, despite these challenges, AFTA agents managed to secure over $8 billion in refunds and credits for Australians whose travel was impacted by COVID.

Calls for clearer T&Cs also raise issues, given each hotel, airline, tour operator and cruise line typically has differing T&Cs across different types of bookings, meaning agents would have to spend hours wading through hundreds of pages for each trip.

That doesn’t seem ideal, seeing as agents already spend loads of time helping clients choose the right booking for their needs and circumstances and (generally) know when and if cancellations and deferrals are possible and whether processing fees are involved.

A more effective way of achieving more protection for consumers would be to strengthen consumer laws, rather than targeting the ‘middleman’.

When approached by Travel Weekly for comment, an AFTA spokeswoman said an independent review of such submissions is currently underway to make sure the outcome maintains consumer and industry confidence.

“Given AFTA’s commitment to an open and transparent process and given the Independent Reviewer is yet to complete his review, it’s inappropriate to comment on any individual submission until that process is finalised,” she said.

Don Farrell poses next to Australia’s new PM Anthony Albanese (Facebook/SenatorDonFarrell)

One thing AFTA was keen to comment on though, was the swearing-in of Australia’s new Minister for Tourism.

Not one to waste time, AFTA is already in conversation with Senator Don Farrell just hours after he was sworn in yesterday morning.

AFTA is already in talks with Farrell about his next steps, with skills and workforce rebuild a key focus.

The peak body welcomed Farrell and expressed appreciation for his ongoing support given the economic significance of outbound travel and the challenge of rebuilding despite workforce shortages.

“AFTA, on behalf of our members and the wider Travel Sector, looks forward to continuing to work closely with Senator the Hon Don Farrell, Minister for Tourism and to strengthening our relationship with the Hon Brendan O’Connor, Minister for Skills and Training as we rebuild our workforce,” Dean Long, AFTA’s CEO said.

“More than a third of our workforce was wiped out as a result of COVID restrictions and now, at a time when travelling Australians need professional travel advice more than ever, we urgently need to address that skills and workforce shortage.

“Senator Farrell has been a long-standing champion of Australia’s travel agents and businesses and AFTA is proud to have a longstanding relationship with him and his office.”

In a recent webinar meeting with AFTA members, Farrell committed to continuing to work with the peak body as the sector recovers.

“We look forward to announcing the date of the promised member webinar with him,” Long continued.

Long said AFTA is also in conversation with the new Minister for Skills and Training Brendan O’Connor, given the importance of aligning skills and training with our sector’s needs.

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