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The American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) has a message for airlines reeling from the effects of the coronavirus: Do right by your travel advisors, because they have done right by you.
In 2019, the travel advisor community was responsible for $97.4 billion in airline ticket sales and $84.6 billion in ancillary sales that represented more than 302 million passenger trips. But now, many advisors have found themselves in the line of fire, stuck between angry customers seeking a full refund for a flight they can no longer take due to restrictions set in place by the coronavirus, and airlines unwilling to budge on their strict refund and exchange policies.
In a statement released today, ASTA urged airlines to review their own policies and to work with major credit card companies — who are predominantly focused on consumer protection and may hold travel advisors accountable when clients file chargeback claims — toward a solution that “will ultimately hold the travel agency harmless for money that is not theirs.”
To illustrate the problem, ASTA put forward a hypothetical case that likely hits close to home for many travel advisors and their clients: If a family who books a Caribbean cruise in May 2020 can no longer sail due to a cancellation from the cruise line, they would have no need to travel to Miami (the embarkation point for the voyage). They simply want their money back for their flights. However, because the airline has not officially canceled the flight, the family does not qualify for a full refund under the current rules of the carrier.
“It’s long past time to revise the rules now in place and to do what’s right,” according to statement released from ASTA today. “This means, among other things, honoring refund requests made for the reasons described and permitting the consumer’s trusted travel advisor to process that refund through their global distribution system (GDS) or otherwise; and ensuring credit card companies are aligned with this effort.”
Clearly, the U.S. travel agency community represents an extraordinarily significant source of revenue to the airline industry, and as such, its views on the harsh impact these refund and exchange policies have on both advisors and the traveling public should be given the most thoughtful and serious consideration.
ASTA’s push comes just hours after the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an Enforcement Order reminding airlines to comply with existing refund obligations promptly. The order came as a result of an increasing number of complaints from ticketed passengers — whose flights were either canceled or significantly delayed — who stated that the carrier only offered vouchers or credits for future travel, offerings that may not be usable due to the carriers’ reduced air travel schedules during the pandemic.
“The longstanding obligation of carriers to provide refunds for flights that carriers cancel or significantly delay does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside the carrier’s control (e.g., a result of government restrictions),” the order states. “The focus is not on whether the flight disruptions are within or outside the carrier’s control, but rather on the fact that the cancellation is through no fault of the passenger.”
In its response, ASTA also released extensive guidelines for airlines seeking to revise their company policies, as well as guidance on how to best care for their travel advisor partners.
These include the following:
- Relaxing existing fare rules to accommodate requested refunds for any flight through the end of 2020.
- Refraining from issuing agency debit memos for credit card chargebacks on canceled flights/trips for which the airlines are refusing refunds today.
- Ensuring that travelers who have booked through an agency are advised to contact their advisor to process refunds and exchanges rather than directly on the carrier’s website.
- Ensuring all tickets are fully refundable and not merely credited for future travel.
- Permitting travel advisors to process all refunds via their GDS and Airlines Reporting Corporation.
- Protecting original agency commissions/incentives on air bookings should the tickets be exchanged or rebooked.
- Protecting advisor commissions on refunded tickets.
- Confirming and/or clarifying that penalty charges or change fees will not apply for canceled or rebooked flights during the current crisis.
- Providing travelers with the opportunity to use any credit issued for unused tickets for a minimum of two years from the original departure date.
- For those tickets booked on or after March 1, 2020, extending the window for rebooking flights to a minimum of one year from date of travel with no change fees.
- Ensuring that ancillary fees for any flight booked in 2020 that is subsequently canceled are fully refunded to the traveler.
“Clearly, the U.S. travel agency community represents an extraordinarily significant source of revenue to the airline industry, and as such, its views on the harsh impact these refund and exchange policies have on both advisors and the traveling public should be given the most thoughtful and serious consideration,” according to a statement from ASTA. “Doing so will help promote and solidify brand loyalty as the agency and airline world continue to align and grow in support of the traveler in a post-pandemic world.”
The DetailsAmerican Society of Travel Advisorswww.asta.org
Read more from TravelAge West about the COVID-19 outbreak.