Passengers finally get outlet for airline complaints

It’s struggling for media oxygen in the swirling controversies of federal politics, but the announcement yesterday by the Transport Minister Anthony Albanese of the creation of a national airline “customer advocate” has the potential to be one of the most useful initiatives in years for travellers.

In effect, it’s an air travel ombudsman – a long overdue consumer initiative considering every Australian, on average, takes an interstate flight at least once a year and a third of the population now travels overseas annually.

It’s a result of the federal government’s Aviation White Paper in December 2010, which proposed a number of consumer initiatives, but it’s far more than a piece of top-down government regulation imposed on the industry.

Starting in July this year, the customer advocate will be financed by the industry itself, although the office will be independent. It will aim to have complaints referred to it resolved within 20 working days – effectively, four weeks – which is not especially ambitious, but at least it creates a timeline that enables consumers to judge whether their gripe has been handled expeditiously.

“Flying is today five times more affordable than it was 20 years ago, thanks to greater competition, the rise of low-cost airlines and the availability of different types of fares, classes and service levels,” Albanese said in his announcement yesterday.

“But cheap fares shouldn’t mean cheap treatment. Passengers are entitled to be treated fairly and decently by airlines. And part of that service means having their complaints dealt with properly and on time.

“Qantas, Virgin Australia, Jetstar Airways, Regional Express and Tiger Airways will participate in and jointly fund the position in response to the government’s call in the National Aviation White Paper. The advocate’s main role will be to act as a facilitator and work with the major airlines to address the complaints of any customer who has been unable to resolve them directly.

“The office of the National Airline Customer Advocate will be based in a major city at a location unconnected with the offices of the participating airlines. The advocate will work with a committee comprising a representative from each of the founding airlines to get complaints resolved within 20 working days.”

Albanese points out that airline customers already have a range of rights under Australian Consumer Law, consolidated in the Australian Competition and Consumer Act (the former Trade Practices Act) .

“The advocate will also monitor and report on the major areas where airlines may be letting their customers down, including the number of complaints received and the major reasons for complaints to each participating airline,” says Albanese.

“As this is an Australian-first, we recognise that it will need ongoing review and fine-tuning by airlines, consumer groups and the government. I am pleased to see Australia’s major airlines responding to the government’s request for greater accountability for their customers and I commend them for working together to establish the National Airline Customer Advocate Scheme.”

According to federal government statistics, Australians made more than 15 million international (one-way) flights in 2011 and more than 54 million people took domestic passenger flights.  Low-cost carriers now account for more than 18 per cent of the international flights and 23 per cent of domestic traffic.

Low-cost carriers are generally no-service carriers and that’s where the bulk of the complaints come from – a booming trade being handled until now in Australia mainly by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and various state fair trading tribunals, as well as by the airlines themselves. But the other big growth area for airline complaints - especially the full-service carriers - is frequent-flyer schemes, where the rules are constantly being changed to devalue accumulated points tallies and make it harder to redeem points when frequent flyers want to use them.

It will be interesting to see how the new advocate performs in terms of complaint resolution rates. I’m guessing that the airlines that are funding it will expect to be able to offload most of their current complaints handling onto the new office so that it represents a zero cost gain for them. In that case, the advocate had better be properly resourced or the airlines will have simply created a new focus for customer discontent with the industry.

Do you have a complaint with an airline that you’re currently trying to have resolved? If you’ve previously had a complaint against an airline, were you happy with how it was handled? Does the new customer advocate sound like a good idea or a bad idea to you?