An Australian law firm is rallying disgruntled consumers around a potential class action against major travel providers such as Qantas, Luxury Escapes and STA Travel over voucher schemes that “significantly disadvantage customers”.
Slater and Gordon have revealed tens of thousands of Australians have allegedly been “shortchanged” by major travel agents, airlines and tour companies after COVID-19 disrupted their travel plans.
Practice group leader Andrew Paull said the affected customers may be able to participate in a class action against their travel providers.
According to Paull, the firm had spoken with holidaymakers who had been left thousands of dollars out of pocket and holding vouchers that they may never be able to use while others felt they were forced to cancel ahead of airline announcements to get back a portion of their fares, only to be hit with hefty cancellation fees.
“We understand that everyone is doing it tough at present, including the major airlines and travel companies, but that doesn’t give them an excuse to take advantage of their customers. Nor is it acceptable for Qantas shareholders to treat the money it owes to ordinary Australians like its own,” Paull said.
“We believe cash refunds should be returned to customers, who almost certainly need that money right now, rather than in bank accounts gathering interest for airline shareholders.
“We call on businesses like Qantas and Jetstar to do the right thing and honour their obligations to their customers. If they won’t do so, then it’s only reasonable for those customers to look at recovering their money through a class action.”
The firm said it believes the companies may have breached their legal obligations by putting in place travel voucher schemes rather than providing their customers with a cash refund.
Qantas told Travel Weekly it is automatically providing credit vouchers to customers who have had their flights cancelled but are providing a full cash refund to those who would prefer it.
The airline also said it has extended the length of time vouchers can be used until the end of 2021.
In one specific instance, James and Victoria Sylvester told ABC News they had booked a holiday at Dubai’s Atlantis Hotel through Luxury Escapes for just under $10,000 and were unable to get a refund.
The couple said they were told they were ineligible for a refund and were only issued with a credit note after weeks of negotiations as “a gesture of goodwill”.
Travel Weekly understands Slater and Gordon have received numerous submissions from consumers about the company.
Luxury Escapes CEO Cameron Holland told Travel Weekly the company has been working 24/7 to assist its customers and have changed more than 45,000 bookings this month compared to the usual 1,000 on an average month.
“For customers with bookings who are unable to travel, we deal with them on a case-case basis,” he said.
“We have introduced greater flexibility such as unlimited changes right up to day of travel, extended validity of travel credit from 12 months to 18 months and extending the majority of our deals.
“Each Luxury Escapes customer booking is treated based upon its individual circumstances and we adhere to the ACCC guidelines and any relevant consumer law to ensure our customers are treated fairly and within the law.”
Slater and Gordon said in a statement that travel companies, particularly airlines, had been presenting “restricted travel vouchers” as an act of generosity even though many customers would have had greater rights if they held onto their ticket. The firms said by doing this, companies have misled their customers.
A spokesperson from the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission told Travel Weekly that while it cannot comment on private court actions, a consumer’s right to a refund was governed by the terms and conditions of the contract entered into between consumer and provider.
“The ACCC has no power to enforce contractual rights for consumers or enforce the statutes dealing with frustration,” the spokesperson said.
“What we can do is ensure that businesses do not make misleading claims to a consumer about their rights under contract or under other laws.
“We encourage all travel providers to treat consumers fairly in these exceptional circumstances.”
Travel Weekly has contacted STA Travel for comment.
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