Getting a refund on “compassionate grounds” may appear to be an option for consumers doing it tough in Covid-times, but there are questions as to how companies decide who is worthy of their sympathy.
Whangārei woman Carla Marsh saved up to take her parents on a special trip to Queenstown to celebrate their 60th birthdays. That involved booking Jetstar flights for herself, husband, three children and Mum and Dad.
Her cousin Kasey George, who was planning her own mum’s upcoming 60th, joined on the birthday plans and soon 21 people were going on the trip. They were scheduled to fly down in August, but then the Covid lockdown put an end to their holiday before it had got started.
Both Marsh and George were able to get refunds on accommodation and rental cars immediately, but it wasn’t so simple for their airfares.
Under New Zealand’s current laws, airlines don't have to give refunds when flights are cancelled for reasons outside of their control, like a pandemic. Customers can still apply to get cash back on compassionate grounds - though this is a policy airlines have in place, not a legal requirement.
Consumer NZ has been helping customers especially in need of compassion. Chief executive Jon Duffy says airlines are doing better than the previous level four lockdown last year.
“Everyone we've referred to, particularly to Air New Zealand have received a refund… We’ve had fewer people approach us with Jetstar”.
Duffy says it can be hit and miss and part of the problem is airline staff having to make a call on someone's 'hardship'.
The Marsh family were down to one income during lockdown - Carla's – and her workload was halved.
She explained her financial situation to Jetstar through its online chat service - that's how the airline likes to interact with customers – and asked for a monetary refund. But a Jetstar agent declined her request and said they could offer Marsh a voucher for future travel, but no cash.
Meanwhile George, who'd booked for her side of the family, for the same trip, had just been granted a refund by a different Jetstar representative.
“In a big company like that I would have liked a bit more compassion and empathy,” Marsh told Fair Go.
So Fair Go went looking for Jetstar's compassion and its policies.
The airline wouldn’t give details but a spokesperson said decisions on refunds were made on a case-by-case basis, like a bereavement or illness.
They also revealed George’s refund was actually a mistake, where one of their agents “applied a different policy than the standard one for cancellations that are outside of our control… On a day of a high volume of cancellations”.
As for Marsh's request, Jetstar wouldn't budge until Fair Go asked them to review her case one more time. That involved showing them her debts, her bills and a letter from her husband's employer. When mention was made of her ongoing medical condition, Jetstar wanted proof of that too.
In light of this, Jetstar then told Fair Go it had made the decision to provide “a full refund for the flights” to Marsh “in line with our compassionate policy”. It also said Marsh would have got a refund if she'd provided all the documentation upfront.
But Marsh says she was never given a chance and hopes the process for customers will be set out clearer on Jetstar’s website going forward.