Trip A Deal boss explains spike in customer complaints

THE past few months have been troublesome for the travel industry and NSW Fair Trading's complaints register has been dominated by airlines and travel-related business recently.

Byron Bay-based travel company Trip a Deal is sitting in second place, having ­attracted 92 complaints from February to April.

Cancellation or cooling-off issues account for 63 of those, with 15 complaints relating to requests for refunds and the remainder spread across other categories.

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Flight Centre topped the list with 165 complaints across March and April.

Until February, Trip a Deal had had no complaints on the register, which shows data as far back as March 2018.

Co-founder Norm Black said there had been "a host of things" contributing to several disgruntled customers.

"Flight Centre went out with so many different things that it greyed the water in what was actually real and what wasn't real," Mr Black said.

"Whilst they ended up cancelling their individual fees, they still kept their supplier fees which is money that cannot be redeemed or brought back."

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Mr Black said he believed many of the complaints resulted from a "lack of understanding" about what had occurred.

While some travellers cancelled their trips early and of their own accord, others had no choice after travel bans were implemented and companies began issuing refunds.

"At that (early) time, if you made a cancellation on a flight booking there were cancellation fees up to $500 to $600 per ticket," Mr Black said.

As time went on, some airlines stopped charging cancellation fees.

"There's a lack of understanding about the change of policy on the run," he said.

But there are other issues at play.

Mr Black said while LATAM Airlines had told passengers they would refund flights to South America that couldn't go ahead, Trip a Deal encouraged customers to stay with them rather than requesting a refund directly through the airline.

LATAM announced in late May it had filed for voluntary bankruptcy protection in the US and would undergo ­"fin­ancial reorganisation", so individuals would be among many others in line as creditors and wouldn't be guaranteed a refund.

"We're saying to customers, 'While you're sitting with us we're giving you a full credit to be used up until the end of 2022'," he said.

"If anything goes wrong whilst you're sitting in our system, you're safe.

"But if you want to pull out of our system and go into that (process with LATAM), go for it but we probably wouldn't advise it."

He said some would-be travellers had gripes with being offered a credit rather than a refund.

But generally, that money was tied up.

"Any travel agent that's any decent, as soon as they take people's money they pay it out on their behalf," Mr Black said.

'They're not giving it back because they just don't have it. To secure a Mediterranean cruise … we'll pay to secure cabins, 18 month in advance."

He said he understood customers' frustrations.

"I get it. And then we're thrown in the scenario where a lot of people's financial situations have taken an absolute nailing," he said.

"They don't understand and they're just trying to shake a tree to see what falls out of it."

Given Trip a Deal has been through some 35,000 bookings, it's not surprising not everyone has been happy with the result but they're still working through issues.

"We're now having to go back through all of those 35,000 bookings and line up anywhere where the situation has been improved," he said.

And Mr Black said some customers were convinced they'd ever want to travel again in a post-Covid world.

He said "supplier fees" which were not being refunded relates to "literally anything that cannot be redeemed in a way of credit or cash".

"It's a cost that's been outlayed on behalf of the customer," he said.

"If we hadn't paid out all these things we'd actually be criminal.

"Imagine what the ramifications would have been if people had been turning up around the world and finding their accommodation and bits and pieces weren't paid for. There's a perception out there travel agents pay for travel post-completion of travel by the customer."

Meanwhile, despite talk of airlines refunding money from cancelled flights, it might not be processed straight away.

"He have only now had some money reversed back to us from cancelled flights, back in December," he said.

"We've got a cancelled cruise that was going into Cuba last June. That (refunded money) still hasn't hit our bank accounts."

He said if companies like his pushed harder to secure refunds, it would just have huge ramifications.

"All it'll end up doing is crushing someone else's business," he said.

Mr Black said of a list of 110 unresolved issued, they resolved 91 matters on Thursday morning.

"They weren't resolved by coming to the party of what the demands were," he said.

"They were resolved by explanation."

He said his team had been swamped in recent months, from dealing with queries to repatriating people who had been stranded across the globe as travel began to shut down.

At the same time, they had to adhere to social distancing rules and began working from home.

"When all this started you had a year's worth of business trying to call you in a week," he said.

"Then … we had to force everyone to start working from home. All these people wanted to do was actually talk to someone. The hardest thing for them to do was talk to someone."

There is light at the end of the tunnel for the industry; Mr Black said people desperate for something to look forward to were starting to book future travel once more.

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