Flight cancellations, long delays: Budget airlines are not doing enough to compensate passengers

It's amazing how quickly the wheels of fate can turn, how soon you can find yourself slapped down by the travel gods after providing them with temptation. It was barely a week ago that I was defending budget airlines and telling travellers that they had no right to complain – and then, I got Tigered.

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Last Sunday, at 3.30pm, I was supposed to fly from Melbourne to Sydney on Tigerair. At 1.40pm that same afternoon – less than two hours before departure – an email dropped into my inbox informing me that my flight had been cancelled, due to "engineering requirements", and I had been bumped onto a 2pm flight… the next day.

I saw this email when I was already on the way to the airport, having checked in several hours earlier online.

By Tigerair's calculations – in the email I was given no alternative to this switch – I would then turn around and travel all the way back into the city, find accommodation for the night, spend most of Monday still in Melbourne, make my way back to the airport, and then eventually arrive in Sydney some time late on Monday afternoon, having missed a day's work and paid for a hotel. And I would be OK with all of that.

Does that seem reasonable to anyone? Does that sound fair and just?

Obviously not, which is why I jumped straight on the phone to try to sort it out. Half an hour later I had managed to first wangle an offer to refund the cost of my flight – not helpful on a Sunday afternoon in the wrong city – then an offer to pay $120 towards accommodation in Melbourne instead – also not helpful enough – and finally an agreement to file my complaint and a request for Tiger to pay for my new flight, which I booked through Virgin Australia to Sydney that same evening.

Now, of course, I have a problem. I could rant and rave about this shoddy treatment by Tigerair, and have myself quite fairly branded a hypocrite who got what he deserved. Or I could stick to my guns and stay quiet. That this story exists is an obvious indication that I went for the former. Hypocrite it is.

The thing is, I've travelled with Tigerair plenty of times before, and only had a few issues. One was pretty recent, in fact – my flight down to Melbourne on that same trip was also cancelled, although that time with a week's notice, rather than an hour and 50 minutes. My last Tigerair flight before that, from Adelaide to Sydney about a month ago, was delayed by about three hours.

These have been inconveniences, but I've been prepared to accept them, to acknowledge that that is the risk you take when you travel ultra-budget. Things don't always go smoothly. Now, however, I've been forced to question where you draw the line on that. Where does it cross over from acceptable inconvenience to intolerable mismanagement?

My feeling is that this latest incident crossed that line. You can't bump someone's flight by an entire day, causing all sorts of inconvenience and cost, with less than two hours notice, by email, and then just shrug your shoulders and say the terms and conditions say you're allowed to do it. You can't send out that email with no mention of the compensation that could be offered, and with no contact details supplied to find out about them.

For one thing, it's incredibly shortsighted – no one who has that happen to them is ever going to fly with your airline again. Finding a way to get customers to their destination on the right day with another carrier might be expensive, but surely that's better than losing customers.

For another thing, it's not just inconvenience that's a problem here. That would almost be acceptable. The main problem is cost. It costs money to travel to and from Melbourne airport, twice. It costs money to book into a hotel for a night and go out and buy food to eat. It costs money to take a day off work at the last minute because you're stuck in another city due to an airline's failures.

I spoke to Tigerair to offer a right of reply, and their response was this: "Tigerair works hard to minimise the disruption with a range of options to assist customers to get to where they are going as soon as possible – including free-of-charge transfers onto other services (subject to availability), hotel accommodation compensation, refunds and credit vouchers to fly at another time.

"On this occasion we communicated to affected customers via SMS and email as soon as we were aware that the flight was cancelled … We exhausted all options to provide other same-day travel solutions for affected customers and while the majority were able to be re-accommodated onto other services that same day, some customers were offered free-of-charge flights the next day … For those customers travelling the next day, hotel accommodation compensation was also offered."

There are a few issues there that I could go into – I wasn't contacted by SMS, and hotel compensation was not offered until I called to complain – but essentially what has happened here is that within a week I've gone from telling everyone they have no right to complain about budget airlines, to complaining about budget airlines.

I could now vow to boycott Tigerair, but is that enough? Regardless of what the T&Cs say, does an airline have at least some sort of responsibility to get you where you've paid to go at a time that's reasonably close to when you've paid to get there? Did Tigerair really exhaust "all options" to get me home? Do I now have a right to complain?

That's something to ponder. While you do that, I'm going to go ahead and not make any more brash statements about airlines.

What has been your worst experience with budget carriers?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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