It’s probably the most low-profile “ombudsman” in Australia: the industry-financed airline customer advocate was appointed in July last year to provide a back-up to airline consumer complaints systems.
More accurately, the advocate was introduced after a 2009 federal government White Paper on Aviation threatened the airlines with a big stick of compulsory regulation if they didn’t hop to it and do more to stop behaving badly and provide a better complaint resolution culture for the paying punter.
“The government will monitor the industry’s efforts to develop proposals to better handle consumer complaints over the coming year, and will consider a more interventionist approach should this become necessary,” the white paper warned.
Part one of the government's reform effort was to get the airlines to each sign off on a customer charter before the appointment of the advocate.
The advocate, Julia Lines, is the former complaints assessments manager at the New South Wales Health Care Complaints Commission, where she was responsible for processing thousands of complaints a year.
But unlike every other nook and cranny of the airline industry, she is not protected from the public by a battery of spin doctors and image managers.
Conversely, there is no effort to publicise the advocate’s work or talk about its successes, even though consumer complaints about bad behaviour by airlines is one of the top-of-mind public issues.
And when you ring the office number, Ms Lines answers the phone.
To get this far, however, you need to have tried and failed to get satisfaction from the airlines themselves. There are five participating carriers: the two Qantases, Qantas and Jetstar, the two Virgins, Virgin and Tigerair, and the regional independent, Rex (short for regional express).
In its first annual report, which covered the six months from when the advocate was appointed to the end of the 2012 calendar year, it received 429 complaints, or three to four per working day.
Extrapolation of the top five complaints data shows that Tigerair was the most complained-about airline with 6.51 complaints per 100,000 passenger trips, more thany twice more complained-about than Jetstar (3.22/100,000). The other complaint rates were Virgin Australia (0.51/100,000), Qantas (0.49/100,000) and Rex (0.35/100,000).
Two thirds (283 or 65.97 per cent) of complaints were resolved to the satisfaction of complainants and Ms Lines says the rest were passed on to state consumer affairs departments for resolution.
In all, 31 per cent of complaints were about booking cancellations and/or refund requests, 18 per cent about flight delays or cancellations, 16 per cent about fees or charges, 9 per cent about airline websites and 5 per cent about ticket terms and conditions.
The average time it took the advocate to resolve complaints – 14.3 days or just inside three working weeks – was well inside the target four weeks or 20 working days.
While Ms Lines said she did not want to get into a discussion of her work beyond what was published in the annual report, she is acutely aware of criticisms about the decision to make the advocate a voluntary industry-run scheme rather than a compulsory government-regulated scheme.
"While the advocate is a welcome start, we think it will leave the balance tilted too much in favour of airlines when difficult issues arise," Choice's former spokeswoman Ingrid Just said in the run-up to last year’s appointment of the advocate. "Existing protections like credit card chargeback, insurance or the Australian Consumer Law fall woefully short of protecting consumers."
Ms Just said it was a missed opportunity that consumer groups were denied the opportunity to work with industry on the customer advocate scheme’s design.
But the government said in the 2009 white paper that it wanted to keep the scheme voluntary to avoid imposing more regulatory costs on the airline industry.
Ms Lines says the system's statistics about the rate of resolution of complaints speak for themselves.
"People might say it is just a clearing house," she says. "They might say I’m a paper tiger – and they’re entitled to their opinions – but the system's obviously working."
Did you know the airline customer advocate existed? Have you had an unsuccessful complaint against an airline and not known where to turn? Were you one of the hundreds who had complaints handled by the avocate? Do you think airline behaviour has improved lately?