I I never thought of writing these words, but I think the time has come for consumers to be flexible. Put our rights in a new context and start thinking about the implications of what is currently happening in the travel sector. I say this after spending most of my working life taking into account airlines, tour operators and other vacation companies, exposing poor, sometimes dishonest services, and campaigning for better rights and consumer protections.
But during that time I have never seen anything like the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. And I’m not talking about the obvious short-term outage. Since we plan, book and pay for trips often months in advance, the effects of the virus on tourism will last for 2020 and probably much longer.
It is a seismic shock to tone the largest industries in the world and a serious existential threat to many of the companies operating within it. Sure. Slowly and eventually, life will return to normal. But we do not want to delay this recovery by seeing whole pieces of the sector collapse.
Let’s take a look at the sad reality from the point of view of an airline, a tour operator, a hotel or a cruise company or one of the many, many companies that make up the backbone of this sector. They already work with narrow margins and depend on their profits (and therefore their survival) on a constant reversal of bookings. These bring funds upfront for some – airlines and tour operators, for example – and in arrears for commission-dependent agents, or hotels that are often only paid when guests are gone.
But instead of taking reservations, checking in guests, and arranging travel arrangements, all these companies now have to spend all their efforts to return the money. Not only does this fundamentally threaten their future, none of them – especially those who were built to trade online – have enough staff to cope with a sudden and extreme change in the way they have to work. Those employees who are stressed out, out of fear of their jobs and livelihoods. In addition, as the virus spreads, more and more people get sick, leaving companies even less staffed.
They also have to deal with anxious and impatient customers who are desperately trying to get their money back. And I know, from the tone of some of those who contacted me, that not all of these customers understand and are not even reasonable in their expectations. I guess it’s not surprising. We are all stressed and worried about the financial consequences of the virus. But I was mostly impressed with the travel industry’s efforts to mitigate the problem. Many are doing their best to help. Many are doing their best to be flexible.
Strictly speaking, customers are usually entitled to a cash refund in such circumstances. But many companies, in their struggle to survive, are trying to get people to accept a postponement – a new reservation for a later date – or a credit offer for a future vacation. So, keeping in mind the end of the situation, I changed the advice I give to those whose travels are canceled and I have suggested that, if possible, they are forbidden to ask for a refund and accept an alternative offer. The more people feel able to do this, the more travel companies will survive long enough to organize our holidays in the future. And you don’t have to worry about losing your money – in the vast majority of cases it will be protected because your vacation was paid for with a credit card booking or a financial bond agreement like Atol.
This week the trade association Abta asked for help and flexibility in the legal situation. He asked the government to take two immediate steps to help the industry survive. First of all to allow companies to reimburse customers for a defined period, during which their payment is protected. Secondly, set up an emergency fund to repay customers’ money where travel agents cannot recover it from their suppliers. Only with these interventions, says Abta, “will we be able to continue to protect the interests of customers and avoid a short-term race on travel companies that will cause breakdowns and delay the reimbursements that reach customers”.
It’s a cry for help. If we want to continue traveling after Covid-19, we should take this into account.