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All work, no pay for travel agents right now

Marcus Towner and his family were meant to be sunning themselves on a European beach right now.

Key points:

  • An estimated $10 billion in holiday bookings have been cancelled
  • Consumer bodies have received thousands of complaints
  • Travel agents are spending hours chasing refunds to no avail

Their five-week itinerary included Croatia, Italy and the Greek islands before culminating in the wedding of friends in London.

Instead, like so many other Australians, they are waiting to recoup thousands of dollars owed to them in refunds for their holiday which was cancelled in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic.

It's an ongoing process.

"Our trip really was the trip of a lifetime," he said.

"For us it was self-funded long service leave.

"The impetus was a friend's wedding in London, but we thought there's no point going all that way without a having a look around, so it was five weeks in Europe.

"We decided to go business class, so it was as good as it was ever going to get and we were very much looking forward to it."

But when coronavirus began sweeping across the globe, it quickly became apparent that their grand holiday, which was set to cost more than $35,000, would have to be scrapped.

"We were devastated because we were so looking forward to it, and being self-employed it's not just something you can do on a whim," Mr Towner said.

By a sheer stroke of luck, their travel insurance policy did not exclude pandemics, and their travel agent Christine Ross has been working hard to help them get refunds on hotels and flights.

"Even after all that, we're still waiting for a fairly large sum of money to come back for our flights," he said.

"It's the best part of 20 grand.

"We're still confident that we are going to get that money back, but I daresay if it weren't for somebody in the travel industry batting for us, then we'd just have to smile and move on."

Hours spent on the phone

The Towners are lucky.

Thousands of other Australians have still not received a cent, including Sharka Hornakova, who's been trying to get refunds for return flights with Qatar Airways to the Czech Republic booked via a popular online website.

"It's been six years since I've been back there and I really wanted to go and visit my mother, but covid came and screwed up our plans," she said.

Ms Hornakova has spent hours on the phone trying to reach representatives from both the website and the airline, before finally finding and submitting an online form to claim a refund.

"You just don't hear back from them," she said.

"If you do get through, they can't help you and they promise someone will ring back but it never happens."

Complaints up five-fold

In 2018-19 more Australians went overseas than ever before — ABS data shows 11.2 million short-term overseas trips were taken, most of them (57 per cent) by holidaymakers.

Coronavirus has clipped our wings severely.

It's believed billions of dollars are currently tied up in unused holiday credits and yet-to-be issued refunds, and customers are not happy.

The issue has become so heated the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has been forced to develop a series of guidelines for travel agents dealing with coronavirus-related cancellations after record numbers of complaints from holidaymakers.

In the six months to the end of June this year, the ACCC received a total of 14,768 complaints related to cancelled travel, a more than five-fold increase on the same time last year.

Most of the work of the ACCC's COVID-19 taskforce — set up to respond to issues impacting Australian consumers and businesses during coronavirus — has been tied up with travel issues, a spokesman said.

"Many consumers have contacted the ACCC asking about their right to a refund or credit voucher for cancelled travel services," he said.

"Other common complaints include businesses allegedly misleading consumers about their entitlements under the terms and conditions of their booking or ticket, or charging excessive change or cancellation fees to consumers."

Refunds could take 12 months: AFTA

Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA) chair Tom Manwaring estimated at least $10 billion had been spent on holidays that were not able to be taken.

He said travel agents were dealing with millions of cancelled bookings, from airfares to hotels, tours and rental car hire, and it could take up to 12 months before the process was completed.

"You're dealing with 52 international carriers into Australia, 60-70 cruise liners, hundreds of different hotel options — so all of those individual businesses have their own individual ts and cs [terms and conditions], " Mr Manwaring said.

"And then you have the ts and cs of the agent and the online agent on top of that.

"Recalling those funds … takes a lot of time for the travel agent, and bearing in mind there's no money in it for them, having to refund back money that they've earned."

Mr Manwaring said travel agents were themselves under an enormous amount of stress, working long days to help customers with no financial reward, since new travel bookings were virtually non-existent.

"If the customer doesn't travel, the agent's out of pocket," he said.

"There's a lot of stress. These guys are re-mortgaging homes and cashing in super just to keep these businesses alive for the day that covid passes."

All work, no pay for travel agents right now

Ms Ross's travel business in the Perth suburb of Attadale has had to cancel around $2 million worth of bookings, or 50 per cent of their annual turnover.

She has only been able to retain her four staff members with the help of JobKeeper payments, but fears what will happen when that payment ends.

"Effectively the entire business has been decimated," she said.

At the same time, she and her staff are working harder than ever because of the amount of time it takes to chase refunds.

"The time that it takes to make a booking usually will equate to about the same amount of time it takes to undo a booking in usual times," Ms Ross said.

"In Covid times you could say four, five, six times longer to undo a booking because the wholesalers, the airlines, the cruise companies are not operating with full staff because they just can't, because they are bleeding.

"So we spend four, five hours on hold on phone calls.

"If it took me 25-30 hours to make a complicated booking, it's probably taken me somewhere in the vicinity of 80 to 100 hours to undo that booking."

In the initial weeks of the pandemic, Ms Ross worked seven days a week.

"It was absolutely relentless and extremely distressing," she said.

"We had clients who were on cruise ships off South America that weren't being allowed to go into any of the ports, trying to get them home, a lot of elderly clients.

"We had families that were displaced from each other trying to get them home, flights being cancelled over and over, countries being unable to be transited through, so it was a really distressing time for the clients."

Each cancelation 'heartbreaking' as holiday dreams dashed

City Beach travel agent Jo Francis tells a similar story.

"Every holiday I've had to cancel has been heartbreaking," she said.

"And I know for a lot of people it's not something that they'll be able to do again.

"A lot of them are elderly, or it was for a special event, weddings all sorts of things have had to be cancelled or postponed."

She said with refund policies constantly changing as international borders close and reopen, it had been been a frustrating time for agents and customers alike.

"I did have a couple of clients who were pretty distressed and did get pretty angry with me, and I tried my best to talk them through that," she said.

"These days as I'm dealing with clients, people are much more understanding, but it's been really tough.

"I think my role is a public servant right now. I feel like I'm providing a free-of-charge service because I don't get paid for what I do anymore."

'20,000 jobs will go' before Christmas without government support

AFTA believes it's time the Federal Government looked at financial support for travel agents.

Mr Manwaring said agents were responsible for the collection of passenger movement taxes on airline tickets, 50 per cent of which was used for airport operations including security and customs.

He said the remaining 50 per cent should be diverted into a fund to help travel agents.

Without such support, Mr Manwaring said a survey of AFTA members indicated up to half of the industry's 3,000 travel agencies could go bust by Christmas, resulting in the loss of around 20,000 jobs.

Already large travel companies such as Flight Centre have closed hundreds of their shops and stood down thousands of employees.

"Getting the industry to survive this period is critical," he said.

"We have all been through 26 weeks of hell, business-wise, so I think some cash needs to come into the industry as a specific support package.

"This is the third-largest industry in Australia — it's critical to get it moving again."

We're unlikely to return to the skies before 2024, industry predicts

Latest figures from Tourism Research Australia (TRA), calculated before the latest Victorian shutdown, are not encouraging for the industry.

"For the next 12 months, the domestic tourism market is estimated to be around $84 billion in 2020-21, a fall of around $23 billion when compared to the last uninterrupted time period (2019)," a TRA spokeswoman said.

"This also assumes the loss of the entire international market, which provided more than $31 billion in tourism spend in Australia in 2019.

"The total loss to the tourism industry could be about $55 billion, or almost 40 per cent of the industry's revenue."

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts the airline industry will not return to pre-coronavirus levels until at least 2024.

But Ms Francis believes the industry has a bright long-term future, given the expected high demand for travel once coronavirus restrictions are eventually ended.

"Overall travel agents are very resilient, we're very optimistic people," she said.

"We've talked many times about the different things that have been confronted in our industry over time.

"The Ansett collapse — I was around for that — 9/11, volcanoes, tsunamis … we've survived through those, and Australians bounce back quickly.

"But we really need some help right now."

Article written by ABC.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/andrea-mayes/5595170?nw=0

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