Qantas has refunded customers on flights that were either cancelled or suspended due to COVID-19, shortly after the government called on the consumer watchdog to look for anti-competitive practices.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has said that its COVID-19 Taskforce had received hundreds of complaints from Qantas passengers who were given vouchers toward new flights and not refunds upon a flight’s cancellation.
The ACCC has said it raised their concerns about Qantas’ refund policy with the airline, who has since announced that it would be issuing full refunds to eligible customers.
It added that only after significant pressure from the ACCC over the past few weeks did Qantas remind their customers of their refund entitlements.
The consumer watchdog has also confirmed it will monitor the domestic market over the next three years, at the request of the government.
Chairman of the ACCC, Rod Sims, has said that Qantas “did not communicate clearly with customers,” regarding the company’s terms and conditions between March 17 and May 31, and “did not adequately inform them of their right to receive a refund.”
“In some cases, the ACCC considers Qantas’ emails may have encouraged these customers to cancel bookings themselves in order to receive a credit when many would have been eligible for a refund,” Sims explained.
“We want to ensure that customers are aware that when Qantas suspends or cancels flights due to travel restrictions and fails to provide them with an acceptable alternative flight, they are entitled to a refund,” he added.
“From our perspective, from the outset, Qantas did not communicate clearly with customers about their rights and, in a large number of cases, simply omitted they were entitled to a refund,” Sims said.
“We do appreciate that the airline industry globally is significantly impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, but I think that customers can and should expect better from Qantas, particularly when many of those customers may be out of work or experiencing financial hardship.”
A Qantas spokesperson has said that COVID-19 travel restrictions presented “an unprecedented level of change in recent months, with well over a million Qantas bookings moved, refunded or turned into credits.”
“We’ve worked hard to explain people’s options, especially during the period of time when there were almost weekly changed to where you could fly,” they added.
“We didn’t think it was unclear to begin with, but we’ve written again to a group of customers in the window of time that the ACCC is concerned about to make sure they know what alternatives are available to them… we hope the ACCC is not inferring that we haven’t done the right thing by our customers, particularly given the efforts we have made to manage an exceptional level of upheaval.”
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has said that the ACCC will monitor domestic air travel over the next 36-months to ensure there is no price-gouging or anti-competitive practices.
“ACCC monitoring will assist in protection competition in the domestic passenger airline market, for the benefit of all Australian airline travellers,” he said, citing section 95ZE of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.
“It will require the ACCC to monitor prices, costs and profits in the domestic air passenger sector,” he continued to explain.
The ACCC Chair said that the economy relies upon the successes of the aviation industry, however, anti-competitive practices will be stamped out. The ACCC will be looking for “any early signs of damage to competition in the domestic airline industry which could harm the long-term interests of consumers,” he said.
“For example, the monitoring regime will inform the ACCC and the Government about the rate at which each airline is increasing capacity on each route.”
“This will provide insight into whether an airline could be adding additional flights to a route in an attempt to damage a competitor or drive them off the route,” he continued to explain.
Sims says that healthy competition is essential in keeping consumer prices down.
“Australia’s aviation sector is extremely competitive and all indications are that it will remain that way,” Sims said. “What the ACCC can expect to find through its monitoring in the near term is Qantas and Jetstar flying its domestic aircraft to generate cash rather than leaving them on the ground costing money.”
“This is good news for consumers because it means lower fares, good news for tourism because it will stimulate travel demand and good news for our people because it means more work.”