The Federal Government is pushing for airlines to improve their response to passenger gripes, writes Clive Dorman.
The Federal Government will use a carrot-and-stick approach to raise the level of protection for consumers against poor behaviour by the airline industry, following a surge in complaints.
State government consumer departments have reported in the past few months that complaints about airlines have surpassed all other categories of consumer dissatisfaction, following the rise of low-cost airlines.
The Federal Government has decided to step up its supervision of the airline industry in a plan outlined in an aviation white paper published last month. While the Government doesn't regulate airline customer service, the paper points out that it still has an important role ensuring airlines operate with honesty, transparency and fairness.
"The low-cost airline business model has lowered [discount] fares further, usually by offering a lower base-level of service to customers with flexible add-ons," the paper says. The add-ons include inflight meals and entertainment, check-in baggage or extra legroom.
Many consumer complaints ... relate to the complaint-handling process itself.
"Some consumers have taken time to adjust to the low-cost carrier mode and the concept of having to pay for services that previously were built in to the base air fare," it says.
"Misunderstandings about service-level standards and check-in times can sometimes lead to dissatisfaction for customers, who sometimes feel that airlines have not been clear about ticket conditions. This can lead to challenges for airline staff in managing and resolving complaints."
While state laws provide a safety net for passengers seeking compensation, the Government believes it is far better for the airlines to keep matters out of court, to minimise complaints and to settle complaints by mutual agreement.
"Many consumer complaints in the aviation industry relate to the complaint-handling process itself, in addition to underlying service concerns," the paper says. "The Government sees a need to ensure airlines make reasonable efforts to engage with the complaints of their customers and make genuine efforts to resolve these issues without recourse to formal legal processes."
The Government is calling on airlines to develop corporate charters that are tailored to each airline and set benchmark standards on the handling of complaints.
The charters should set out minimum standards, dealing with issues such as the minimum time for acknowledging a complaint, guarantees of local-call telephone assistance, minimum times for responding to the substance of a complaint and clear undertakings to offer full refunds to consumers in specified circumstances, such as cases of denied boarding due to deliberate overbooking or significant schedule alterations.
"The Government also expects the industry to establish a mechanism for consumers to have unresolved complaints examined by a third party, such as an industry ombudsman, independent of the airline involved," the paper says.
The Government says it will monitor the industry's efforts to better handle consumer complaints this year and will consider a more interventionist approach if needed.