The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has drafted a set of core principles for governments to consider when adopting consumer protection legislation for air travellers. IATA unanimously endorsed the core principles at the 69th Annual General Meeting of IATA in Cape Town on 3 June 2013.

The core principles for passenger rights cover delays, denied boarding and cancellations, information for fares and ticketing, assistance for those with impaired mobility and efficient complaint handling procedures.

This article considers whether in the light of these core principles, an air passenger bill of rights should be adopted in Australia. It covers how air passenger rights are currently protected in Australia and it is illustrated by how Australian airlines treat flight delays and cancellations on domestic flights.

How are air passenger rights protected in Australia?

No air passenger rights legislation exists as such in Australia, unlike in Europe where Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 applies, or in the USA where the DOT rules apply, to delayed and cancelled flights. In Australia, the Australian Consumer Law (administered by the ACCC) contains only general consumer protection for air passengers.

At the request of the Australian Government, and as an alternative to the introduction of a legislated air passenger bill of rights, the major players in the airline industry in Australia voluntarily established the Airline Customer Advocate in July 2012.

The Airline Customer Advocate is an independent body established to represent the interests of airline customers. It acts like an ombudsman. It strives to resolve complaints about Australian domestic flights that the customer has not been able to resolve directly with the airline.

Each participating airline in Australia is required to provide a Customer Charter to the Airline Customer Advocate. The Customer Charters draw from the airline’s Conditions of Carriage and cover cancellation/refund requests, flight delay or cancellation, fees or charges, and terms and conditions or carriage. The participating airlines are: Qantas, Jetstar Airways, Virgin Australia, Tiger Airways Australia and Regional Express (REX). International airlines and flights are not covered.

The Customer Charter is the standard by which the airline is prepared to be judged in terms of whether it has responded adequately to the customer’s complaint.

What are the core principles IATA advocates for delays, denied boarding and cancellations?

IATA advocates these core principles:

  • In the case of delays, entitle passengers to re-routing, refunds or care and assistance; and acknowledge that when delays or disruptions are beyond the control of the airlines, market forces should determine the care and assistance available to passengers.
  • In the case of denied boarding and cancellations, entitle passengers to re-routing, refunds or compensation where circumstances are within the airlines’ control.

Source: IATA Press Release No.: 32 Date: 3 June 2013

How do Australian airlines treat delay and cancellation on domestic flights?

The Airline Customer Advocate has reported that 18% of the complaints received were for flight delay or cancellation, in the December half year 2012.

Before we look at how Australian airlines provide for their passengers in the case of flight delay, the question must be asked, how is a delay defined?

The answer is that a flight departure is on time if it departs the gate within 15 minutes of the scheduled departure time, and a flight arrival is on time if it arrives at the gate within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival time shown in the carrier’s schedule. Source: The Australian Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics.

Summaries of the Customer Charter policies for the major Australian airlines for delays and cancellations, and the number of complaints the Advocate has received for delays and cancellations per 100,000 passengers carried are:

Qantas (QF) has fewest complaints - 0.11 per 100,000. This is the Qantas policy –

  • Advance warning - if a delay of 45 minutes or more is expected, or if the flight is cancelled, at least 2 hours ahead of the scheduled departure time, QF will contact the passenger.
  • Cancellation – QF will use reasonable endeavours to re-book the passenger on an alternative flight on a QF service at no additional cost to the passenger. If this is not suitable, then QF will refund the full fare.
  • Delay overnight for reasons within its control (technical problems, operational issues), or an overnight disruption for reasons outside its control (bad weather, natural disasters) away from the home port – QF will provide meals, accommodation and transfers.

Virgin Australia (VA) has the second fewest complaints - 0.23 per 100,000. This is the Virgin Australia policy–

  • Advance warning - if a flight is cancelled at least 2 hours before the scheduled departure time, VA will contact the passenger. 
  • Delay and Cancellation – flight disruption for issues within its control (aircraft maintenance or crew shortages), VA will re-book on another VA service at no additional cost. If this is not suitable, then VA will credit or refund the full fare. If delayed overnight in a port away from home, VA will arrange and pay for hotel accommodation, transfers and meals (limits apply).
  • Delay and Cancellation – for issues outside its control (bad weather, airport terminal closures or security incidents), VA will re-book on another VA service at no further cost. If this is not suitable, then VA will credit or refund the full fare.
  • Tarmac Delay – on board the aircraft, VA will provide water, food, lavatory facilities and urgent medical requirements.

Jetstar (JQ) has the next fewest complaints - 0.59 per 100,000. This is the Jetstar policy –

  • Advance warning – if a delay of more than 30 minutes is expected before the day of departure, or of more than 45 minutes on the day of departure, or if a cancellation, JQ will advise the passenger or the travel agent via SMS or a phone call and leave a message.
  • Delay of more than 45 minutes on the day of departure, or Cancellation (‘schedule changes’) – JQ will re-book the passenger on the next available JQ flight (if it has 2 hours prior notice) at no additional cost to the passenger. If JQ cannot book on the next available flight on the day due to depart, JQ will arrange a booking on another airline on the same day, or on the next available JQ flight, or give a fare refund.

Tiger Airways (TT) has the most complaints - 1.57 per 100,000. This is the Tiger Airways Disruption Policy–

  • Advance warning – for flights rescheduled before the date of departure by more than 30 minutes, TT will contact the passenger.
  • Delay and Cancellation – TT will reschedule the passenger on the next available TT flight, without additional charge. If the re-booking is not reasonably acceptable, a fare credit will be available for up to 6 months. And if the reschedule is within its control, TT will offer a fare refund.

Qantas and Virgin Australia offer refreshments for delays of more than 2 hours.

Airlines are prepared to waive their conditions if the destination has been affected by a natural disaster.

The variations between the policies, particularly fare credits and refunds, illustrate how each airline sees market forces operating.

Conclusion

Australian Airline Customer Charters provide greater passenger entitlements than the IATA core principles for delay and cancellation, and also provide for refund requests, fares, fees or charges and terms and conditions of carriage.

Therefore, at this time, there is no apparent need for a legislated air passenger bill of rights to be adopted in Australia to cover these consumer rights.

And IATA will be pleased to see that in the way the Airline Customer Advocate has been set up, Australia is not a place where there is a “proliferation of uncoordinated and extra-territorial passenger rights legislation and regulation that is the cause of confusion among passengers.”