The boss of Australia’s peak body for travel agents was forced into an embarrassing apology this week after suggesting TV’s queen of consumer journalism Tracey Grimshaw be given a “slap across the face” or a “firm uppercut”.

One day later,  Jayson Westbury, a usually calm travel professional, was forced to hand in his resignation.

What made Mr Westbury so angry? Ms Grimshaw had hosted a program pointing out that many travellers, who had trips cancelled because of the pandemic but who had paid up many weeks ago, were still awaiting refunds.

And many of those refunds are held by travel agents.

Frustration is beginning to boil over as the timeframe for their refund remains unclear. Communication lines are clogged. The persistent sometimes discover it will be months before they are paid out.

And it is hindering recovery.  Passengers who can’t rebook because they haven’t received refunds mean cruise lines are not getting cash back onto their books.

The problems have been caused by the extraordinarily complex repayment systems that involves not just travel companies, but airlines and ground transport.

What has frustrated many is that the cancellations have not been caused by passengers or the carrier. The systems are designed to handle passenger cancellations on a very small scale. What is happening now is simply overwhelming.

And yes, some agency are simply refusing refunds and handing out credit instead. STA, the student travel firm, has had young customers claiming they were refused funds, though when tackled by The financial Review, the company denied it had changed its policy.

Intrepid, Webjet and others have been caught out by the deluge of refunds and complaints.

Last month, Flight Centre reduced their cancellation fees to $300 after backlash from customers. This month, it axed them altogether.

“The decision to waive fees will impact our business, nevertheless we have heard your feedback and we believe this step is the right one for the current economic conditions where stand-downs and job losses are a daily occurrence for many Australians.”

The company added a $200 bonus to those who left their money with the agency so they could rebook.

Customers are also starting to receive emails stating that cancellation fees will be waived by some travel companies as they struggle to re-instil confidence in the markets.

Travel InsuranceCruise lines have found themselves particularly vulnerable.  Struggling to stay afloat, they need to hang on to cash as long as possible.

So they are luring passengers into staying with their bookings by offering Future Cruise Credit of up to 200%.  But some passengers have discovered next year’s prices are rising rapidly, and some don’t cover the cruise credit.

Gillian Duncan booked a Holland America cruise with Flight Centre and had to pay $300 per person in cancellation fees, but realised that it would be a long wait after contacting both the cruise line and her travel agent.

“Holland America did say it could take 120 or more days for them to even reimburse my money to Flight Centre, Flight Centre then claim it will take approximately 90 more days for them to reimburse,” says Gillian Duncan.

“It can take up to 3 months to receive the monies back from suppliers in a normal trading environment. In the current environment, which is far from normal, some suppliers, particularly airlines, are unable to process within these timelines and have formally advised us that it may take up to 6 months to process refunds. It’s also important to note that policies do continue to change however as suppliers also work to reflect current market conditions,” writes the Flight Centre email.

“I’d rather have the money back and book directly when things settle down. I really hope we get our money back otherwise we wouldn’t be able to travel again for some time,” says Ms Duncan, who is keen to rebook a cruise next year.

Ms Duncan is not alone. Dora Miraglia-Meola who booked a Princess cruise with Ozcruising is still waiting for her cruise refund which she cancelled in mid March. “They are saying it could take 3-6 months but they suggest a credit to be used within 24 months.”

“No refund from Carnival yet, $6k but they did say 90 days and it’s only been 45 days since I sent the form off to them. I did book through Cruise Sale Finder but they assure me I get it all back less the credit card fees but their business is closing in September now so hopefully the money comes to me and not them,” says Vanda Bagnall.

Other travel agents like CruiseGuru has also removed its usual $110 per person cancellation fee for cruises cancelled due to suspension and is advising a minimum of 12 to 14 weeks wait for refunds. Cruiseaway has also told their clients to expect a 12 week wait.

“Cruise was cancelled by Norwegian Cruise Lines 9 February, asked Cruiseaway for refund, NCL refunded agent late March – still waiting for any details let alone a refund from agent – absolutely disgusted!” says Colin Neil who rang Norwegian Cruise Lines directly for information and was told that the refund has been sent.

For travel agents who are charging cancellation fees in this time, the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA) and consumer affairs advocate CHOICE confirms that agents are within their rights to charge cancellation fees.

“The system and revenue flow to agents for their time spent is not designed for cancellations and refunds. Agents are doing all they can for clients and are caught in the middle without any control over the actions of suppliers,” says AFTA.

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