The boss of travel company Helloworld says excessive travel cancellation fees is “a burning issue” but denies his company is to blame, pointing the finger at suppliers.
Helloworld Travel tore through its annual general meeting on Friday in a blistering 30 minutes and escaped all questioning until the last moment when the thorny cancellations issue was raised.
Chairman Garry Hounsell left it to chief executive Andrew Burnes, ex-treasurer of the Liberal Party, to respond.
Mr Burnes acknowledged the big fees would-be travellers are being slugged — reportedly thousands of dollars — after being forced by the pandemic to call off their plans.
“Those cancellation fees have not been cancellation fees of Helloworld. They have been cancellation fees of various suppliers and it is a burning issue,” he told investors.
“We’ve had regular engagement with the ACCC about this, and we’ve been very firm in keeping any cancellation fees, if any that we have, to a minimum with our customers.
“But different airlines have imposed different policies … different land operators as well and different cruise operators, so there’s been a lack of consistency … about the fees and also conditions.”
He said there were “challenges” around whether suppliers offered credits only or refunds.
“Many of those issues have now been resolved but it certainly has caused some concern out there,” Mr Burnes said.
“The other matter that has also caused concern has been the length of time it has been taking to get monies back from suppliers to refund them back to customers. That’s still an ongoing issue.
“The actual fee side of it, it’s not been helpful but certainly Helloworld I think has conducted itself very well in that regard and has not been subject to any criticism or any sanction from any of the regulatory authorities at a state or federal level.”
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission data shows the pandemic’s impact on travel accounted for 24,210 out of the 109,446 complaints received by the watchdog in the first 10 months of this year, up 497 per cent compared with the same period last year.
“Common misconduct we’ve received complaints about during the pandemic includes businesses misleading consumers about their right to a refund or deducting cancellation fees from refunds when there is no contractual basis to do so,” ACCC commissioner Sarah Court said on Wednesday.
“We announced some cases such as Flight Centre, Qantas and Etihad, where we worked with those businesses to improve their treatment of customers, but we’ve been doing a lot of other work behind the scenes with dozens of travel businesses to get refunds and other remedies for customers who had their holiday plans dashed.
“The ACCC is very conscious of the fact that many businesses have struggled to process cancellations and respond to consumer queries as they have reduced staff capacity and are struggling to stay afloat.
“We have taken these issues into account in our engagement.”
Helloworld is burning through cash but says it has enough money and liquidity to maintain operations “well into 2022 or longer”.
The travel agent chain has obviously not given up on the beleaguered cruise sector despite it being at the centre of many outbreaks, announcing on Monday it had agreed to add cruise wholesaling specialist CruiseCo to its cruising business.
Mr Burnes told the meeting the company was confident it would be able to market and sell global cruises for departure later next year.
“We’re also confident that all state borders, with the possible exception of Western Australia, will be open by the end of this year, and hopefully WA will follow suit early in 2021,” he said.
“Once that happens there will be a significant uplift in travel.
“In the new year we would anticipate Pacific bilateral bubbles to open up in countries throughout Asia, although we do not expect travel to Europe, the UK or the USA to open up in any meaningful way until the last quarter of 2021.”
Helloworld hit headlines last year after Labor claimed Mr Cormann, who resigned as Australia’s longest-serving finance minister last month, had family holiday flights paid for by Helloworld, which he denies, claiming there was an administrative error with his credit card.
Mr Cormann conceded he had called Mr Burnes personally several times to arrange his family holidays.