With peak travel season quickly approaching, many are gearing up for adventures during the Christmas and New Year holidays, and the first thing on the list is to book air tickets. However, itineraries may be seriously affected should there be any flight changes, which not only spoils the fun but may also lead to financial loss. In the first 10 months of 2023, the Consumer Council received 1,537 complaints about air ticket bookings, which had more than doubled the 727 cases received in the same period last year, involving disparities in interpretations of terms and conditions, no flight delay compensation, and delays in refund arrangements. The Council reminds consumers to distinguish restrictions and terms and conditions among different classes of air tickets and pay attention to flight change policies when booking air tickets to protect their consumer rights.
According to complaints received by the Council, some airlines offer more expensive tickets with “free change” or even refunds, which may in fact only waive handling charges involved in rescheduling and passengers are still required to pay the differences in airfares, taxes, or class upgrade, etc. The Council recommends airlines to enhance clarity of services and terms and conditions of various types of air tickets, so consumers can make easier comparisons before making their choices.
Case 1: Different Interpretations of “Flexi Pass”
Only Rescheduling Fees Waived and Paid Nearly $1,000 Extra
The complainant purchased 2 round-trip tickets from Hong Kong to Tokyo on Airline A’s website. As the complainant was worried that her husband’s employment might not work for a fixed departure date, she purchased a “Flexi Pass” to enjoy higher flexibility of making 3 free flight changes. 2 weeks before the departure, the complainant was unable to travel as scheduled and contacted the airline to request for a 2-day postponement but received a reply stating an additional $920 per passenger was required for the relevant arrangements. The complainant was shocked because according to the company's website, “Flexi Pass” passengers were entitled to 3 free flight changes. Airline A’s staff later told the complainant that due to cancellations by other passengers, there were seats available for the complainant to change departure date at a lower price ($430 per passenger). The complainant, who had no choice but to pay an additional fee of nearly $1,000, considered that information provided by the airline was misleading and sought assistance from the Council.
Upon enquiring with Airline A, the Council learnt that the “3 free flight changes” as stated online referred only to the waiver of rescheduling fees, and that their online information also indicated that the final fee would include items such as potential differences in airfares and taxes. In addition to the change of departure date, the complainant was also upgraded from Economy Class N to Economy Class M, so Airline A considered that the complainant should pay the difference of $430 per person and refused refund. In addition, Airline A also reminded passengers that they should have a thorough understanding of service terms and conditions, which include fees related to change of date, flight, cancellation, refund, airfare differences and taxes.
Case 2: Flight Cancelled for No Reason and Was Delayed for Almost 1 Day
The complainant purchased a ticket from Airline B for a flight from Hong Kong to Toronto via Vancouver. Later, she found that the airline cancelled her original flight for no reason and rescheduled it to another flight that would depart 23 hours later without her approval. The complainant immediately called the airline to ask for the reason for the cancellation but received no justifiable response and was only persuaded to pay an additional $5,000 to keep the original ticket. The complainant felt that the change was a result of improper arrangements by Airline B, and was dissatisfied with the airline’s unauthorised rescheduling of flights without her consent, leading to serious delays to her original itinerary, including failure to attend a scheduled medical appointment.
As the flight was delayed, the complainant requested Airline B to compensate her for 1 night’s accommodation and a free upgrade to Business Class. The airline rejected her request, and only suggested the complainant to stay at the airport for 23 hours and take another flight, or pay $5,000 to keep her original flight. The complainant checked the company’s terms and conditions and learnt that if a flight is delayed for 9 hours or more, the passenger should be entitled to CAD$1,000 as compensation. After unsuccessfully resolving the issue with Airline B, the complainant decided to lodge a complaint with the Council. After the Council’s intervention, the airline eventually offered compensation and the complainant accepted the arrangement.
Case 3: Travel Agent and Airline Putting Blame on Each Other
Complainant Not Receiving Refund for Over 3 Months
The complainant purchased 5 round-trip tickets between Hong Kong and Belgium at a total cost of $33,665 through Travel Agent C. The complainant was notified by the agent 5 days prior to departure that the original flight had been cancelled and a new flight would depart 5 days later than the original schedule, and the complainant was required to confirm the relevant changes within 24 hours. The complainant, not accepting the arrangement, requested the agent to change the flight to another one departing on the same day, but to no avail. The agent then suggested a refund and the complainant subsequently cancelled the ticket within time and waited for refund arrangements.
However, Travel Agent C kept delaying payment on the grounds that the airline refused to refund. The complainant waited for over 3 months without receiving the money, and as the agent never informed the complainant of the reason for the cancellation, the complainant was unable to apply for travel insurance compensation. The complainant also tried to contact the airline directly for enquiry, but the airline refused to give further response because the complainant had purchased the tickets through a travel agent. Feeling helpless, the complainant finally decided to approach the Council for assistance.
As the case involved a travel agent, the Consumer Council, with the consent of the complainant, forwarded the case to the Hong Kong Travel Industry Authority (TIA) for follow-up. According to the TIA’s reply, the airline eventually refunded the money to Travel Agent C, who in turn immediately transferred the sum to the complainant, and the case was resolved.
Consumers should pay heed to these tips when buying air tickets:
- Carefully read the terms and conditions of different classes of air tickets before booking. If there is a possibility of change or cancellation of itinerary, consumers should pay special attention to whether the airline has a clear policy on how to handle the situation. Even though some air tickets are refundable, travel agents and airlines may charge a handling fee. In addition, some airlines may offer refunds in the form of miles or reward points instead of cash, and the refund period can be as long as 3 to 6 months. So it is important for consumers to ask for clarification of details before purchasing a ticket;
- Flight schedules are subject to change according to airlines’ arrangements. Consumers should pay attention to whether they have received any notification of such changes, and they can also check the latest flight status from time to time through the websites of airlines, booking platforms, or travel agents;
- Changes or refunds of air tickets purchased through travel agents or booking platforms are also handled by the respective travel agents or platforms. All licensed travel agents in Hong Kong are regulated by the TIA, and consumers can check the list of licensed travel agents on their website. Consumers can also contact the TIA in case of consumer disputes with licensed travel agents (Tel: 3698 5900, website: https://www.tia.org.hk);
- Consumers should be aware of the difference between traditional airlines and low-cost carriers (LCCs). While the former includes services such as in-flight catering and check-in baggage allowances, LCCs airfares generally only cover airfares and carry-on baggage, with other services purchased at additional cost. However, in recent years, traditional airlines have also introduced various types of air tickets which include diverse services such as additional charges for pre -selected seats and different check-in baggage allowances at different fares. Consumers should carefully read through service details to avoid any misunderstanding.
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