There are consumer rights if a travel service is delayed or cancelled. These basic consumer rights, known as consumer guarantees, apply to:
- travel services within Australia
- travel services provided by international businesses that depart Australia
- travel services to Australia from another country and booked through a travel provider's Australian website.
These rights apply regardless of whether the consumer books these travel services:
- directly with a primary travel service provider. A primary travel service provider could be an airline, cruise line or tour operator
- through a travel agent, or
- through a third party or intermediary, such as a booking platform or travel package provider.
Rights if services aren't provided in a reasonable time
The consumer guarantee that services are provided within a reasonable time is especially relevant to travel services. When a travel service is delayed or cancelled, it may mean this guarantee has not been met, depending on:
- the length of the delay
- whether the delay or cancellation was within the travel service provider's control
- whether the travel service provider moved the consumer to a different service at an alternative time
- when that alternative service is.
If that replacement service is not within a
reasonable time, the travel service provider must give the consumer their choice of a different replacement service or refund.
If the consumer had to book a new flight with another airline because the airline they had originally booked with had no reasonable replacement flights, they may have a right to reimbursement from the original airline for the cost of that flight.
Definition of reasonable time
There is no one set definition of what will be ‘a reasonable time’.
The ACCC doesn't decide what is reasonable. This is the role of a court or tribunal.
Many different factors may be relevant in each individual case. For example, things like the purpose of the consumer's travel, or the airline's usual flight schedule. If the consumer and travel service provider disagree about what is reasonable, the consumer can take the problem further.
Rights to a replacement or refund
When a business sells a product or service that doesn’t meet the consumer guarantees, it must offer the consumer a solution. The solutions are collectively referred to as remedies, and may include a replacement or refund.
Travel service providers do not have to give replacement travel services or refunds under the consumer guarantees if:
- consumers change their mind or miss their travel service due to no fault of the travel service provider
- the actions of a third party prevents the travel service provider from supplying their service. For example, where airlines cancelled flights due to government travel restrictions in response to COVID-19.
In these situations, the consumer's right to a refund or replacement travel service will generally depend on the terms and conditions of their booking.
If a consumer has booked their travel through a travel agent or another intermediary, they should check the terms and conditions of the intermediary. The consumer should also check the terms and conditions of any primary travel service provider. Both businesses’ terms and conditions will apply.
Agents and intermediaries will also usually be bound by the terms and conditions of the primary travel service provider. Legally, they may only need to pass on to consumers the remedy that is offered by the primary travel service provider for the booking.
Flight terms and conditions
When a consumer buys a flight ticket, they are entering into a contract with the airline. The terms and conditions of the
contract are set out in the airline’s conditions of carriage. Terms and conditions will vary between airlines and different fare classes.
Airline conditions of carriage do not include a guarantee of flight times. Consumers should not assume that a plane will meet its exact advertised schedule.
However, airlines must meet the consumer guarantee of providing the service within a reasonable time.
Airline compensation policies
Most airlines that operate in Australia have a compensation policy published on their website. These policies set out the compensation and other help that an airline may provide to consumers if a flight is delayed or cancelled. This might include accommodation and meal costs.
Some airlines may give different levels of compensation and help. This will depend on whether the cancellation or delay was within the airline's control.
Airlines should be proactive and truthful in telling consumers the reasons a flight is delayed or cancelled. They should also tell consumers what compensation they may be entitled to under both the airline’s policy and the consumer guarantees.
A consumer’s rights under an airline compensation policy are on top of their rights under consumer guarantees. An airline’s policy can’t take away consumer guarantee rights.
Tips for consumers when booking travel
If arriving at your destination on time is critical, consider this when booking travel. For example, you may wish to:
- book a fare class that offers better options if there is a delay or cancellation. You may have more flexibility, or better remedies if there is a delay or cancellation, with booking a more expensive fare class
- allow extra time to arrive at the airport, and between flight connections.
Check the terms and conditions of the travel service before booking, and also the terms and conditions of your agent or other intermediary if you are booking through one. Understand what you will be entitled to if your travel is delayed or cancelled due to different situations:
- where the travel provider delays or cancels the travel service
- where you decide to cancel, or you miss your travel service
- where the booking can’t proceed due to reasons out of both your control and the travel provider’s control. This is sometimes called a ‘force majeure’ term.
What you are entitled to might be different in each situation. Contact the travel service provider if:
- the terms and conditions are not clear, or
- you can't find the terms and conditions.
Ask them to confirm these things in writing. There may also be different terms that apply for different travel periods. Check the ones that apply to your travel dates.
Guidance on COVID-19 related cancellations for service providers
During the peak of COVID-19, the ACCC and state and territory Australian Consumer Law regulators developed best practice guidance for the travel industry. It is intended to guide travel service providers dealing with cancellations as a result of travel restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is different to where a travel service would still proceed but a consumer decided to cancel their booking because of COVID-19 concerns.
The principles set out in this guidance also generally apply to other situations where the actions of a third party prevents the travel service provider from supplying their service. For example, where a 4WD tour operator can’t operate its usual tour in a state park because the state government has restricted entry to the park due to the fire danger rating on that day.
For more information, see the ACCC and Australian Consumer Law Regulators best practice guidance for the Travel Industry for COVID-19 related travel cancellations.