Consumer Affairs Australia has issued its 2014-15 Annual Report (February 2016).

The report contains details about how the Australian Consumer Affairs Regulators are meeting the ‘consumer protection challenges’.

The report contains five case studies which cover travel and accommodation: Travel Services Reform, travel and accommodation consumer protection, promotion of hotel rooms and in-flight duty-free shopping.

This is a summary of the case studies -                                                                                                                                  

Travel Services Reform programs

Following the abolition of Travel Agents Licensing and the Travel Compensation Fund which took effect from 1 July 2014 (the Travel Services Reform), the ACL Regulators funded two programs.

They were the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA) Travel Accreditation Scheme (ATAS) and the CHOICE ‘travel hub’ project. Each program was awarded a $2.8 million grant from surplus funds held in the Travel Compensation Fund account.

The CHOICE program began with a survey – which it called a ‘Holiday Horrors’ campaign. It was carried out in the December 2014 and January 2015 holiday period. CHOICE has published its survey findings and its tips for avoiding common problems on its website – see Top seven travel troubles and how to avoid them

The report does not provide any more details about how the grants were applied.

Travel Services Reform education campaign

At the same time, the Regulators implemented a national education campaign –

  • To help travel consumers and the travel industry to understand their rights when booking a holiday;
  • To educate Australians on the questions they need to ask before buying travel and travel products; and
  • On how to seek a remedy if something goes wrong with a travel purchase.

They called it the Pack some peace of mind campaign, and made use of a range of communications to publicise the Pack. These included website content, an online video, digital, print and radio advertising, media engagements, blogger and social media activities, industry support, and participation in travel expos around the country. The campaign had an impressive response – it reached 16 million users in terms of media engagement. The campaign has ended and the dedicated website has now ceased.

Travel and accommodation industry insolvencies

The Queensland Office of Fair Trading has led a project to set up an information bank about insolvent travel agents and possible unconscionable conduct in the travel industry.

This project was set up following upon the removal of the safety net that was provided by the now abolished Travel Compensation Fund (the changes) for payments made to travel agents and tour operators who absconded with the funds or went into liquidation, leaving the travellers without travel arrangements.

This is their progress report:

The working party is reviewing 16,500 records covering 9,000 complaints and 4,000 enquiries made to regulators in 2013 to 2014 and relating to the $30 billion plus consumer travel and accommodation industry. Preliminary results show no notable change in the number, or nature, of consumer complaints since the changes. The working party will complete its analysis before considering whether further compliance or education action is necessary.

Carlson Hotels Asia Pacific Pty Ltd - misleading promotion

Carlson Hotels Asia Pacific promoted to Carlson club members (by email) that Radisson hotel rooms were available in Australia at a price that was only available in hotels in Asia. They used a photo of a hotel in Melbourne. The problem was that the rooms offered were not available anywhere in Australia.

The Queensland Office of Fair Trading considered the representations in the promotion to be misleading. But in light of the fact that a breach via an electronic medium was ‘a significant challenge’ to prosecuting, issued Carlson Hotels with a civil penalty notice for $10,200 under the Australian Consumer Law.

Qantas Airways Limited - sale of unsafe products

‘Nano Magnetics Nanodots Onyx/Gold’ (small, high-powered magnets) were available on Qantas international flights and on the ‘In Sky Shopping’ website from August to September 2013. At the time, they were banned from sale in Australia because they can cause severe internal injuries if swallowed.

Their sale / advertisement for sale was in breach of the consumer product safety provisions of the Australian Consumer Law.

The Federal Court of Australia ordered Qantas Airways to pay a penalty of $200,000 and Alpha Flight Services (which operated the duty-free program) to pay a penalty of $50,000. They were ordered to publish notices on their websites, in the ‘In Sky Shopping’ catalogue and in national newspapers. They were also ordered to give refunds, to pay $60,000 in costs, to pay the legal costs of Consumer Affairs Victoria, and to destroy and dispose of the unsafe goods.

Could the the Australian Consumer Affairs Regulators be doing more?

In the CHOICE survey findings, the top four travel problems identified were –

  1. Booking online (26%)
  2. Flights (24%)
  3. Transport (taxis, buses, trains) (19%)
  4. Booking with a travel agent (18%)

It could be useful if the Australian Consumer Affairs Regulators looked closely at these problems and created national projects for these problems (as are not being addressed), now that its work is almost complete on the travel service reform.