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Travel businesses in NI warned to treat consumers fairly or face enforcement action


The Department for the Economy’s Trading Standards Service (TSS) is warning travel businesses to treat consumers fairly or face enforcement action.


The warning comes in the wake of over 800 complaints since mid-March to the Department’s free consumer advice service, Consumerline, from consumers who have had their holidays cancelled as a result of the current pandemic.


TSS has written to a number of travel agents in Northern Ireland advising them to pay refunds for cancelled holidays or face possible enforcement action.


TSS continues to remain concerned about the harm which consumers are suffering in the package travel sector with many travel businesses not providing the refunds required by consumer law when package holiday contracts are terminated as a result of Covid-19.


Complaints made to Consumerline include:


  • Consumers having difficulty in contacting the tour operator or booking provider.

  • Consumers only being offered a voucher or a refund credit note, in some cases misleadingly, or only being given the option to rebook the flights at a later date rather than a cash refund.

  • Long delays in obtaining a refund, including consumers who requested a refund back in March being told that they will have to wait until next year before it is returned.

  • Some passengers being told that due to the higher value of their flight tickets, they will have to wait longer for a refund.

  • Being charged fees for altering dates, cancelling or rebooking flights by the travel booking agent.

  • Where a consumer has already accepted a voucher, in some cases unwittingly, they are having difficulty obtaining their preferred option of a cash refund instead.

  • Consumers struggling to claim redress through their card provider (section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974) until they have gone through the full process of attempting to obtain refunds directly from travel providers in the first instance.


As a result of these complaints TSS has provided advice and guidance to 29 local travel agents reminding them that they need to abide by consumer law and take immediate corrective action to bring about compliance. TSS expects that consumers who are entitled to refunds will be paid those refunds, and that businesses will comply with consumer law.


Damien Doherty, Chief Inspector for the Trading Standards Service, said: “We appreciate the difficulties at this time faced by all these businesses. However, consumers’ rights under the Package Travel Regulations 2018 have not changed during the Coronavirus pandemic. The costs associated with holidays can be substantial and it is important that consumers continue to receive the protection afforded by the law.


“While it is the case that a consumer can be offered a re-booking or a voucher, they should not be cajoled into accepting these if a refund is their preferred option.  Also, any restrictions that may apply to vouchers or re-bookings must be fair and drawn to the attention of consumers.


“Trading Standards has been engaging with a number of local travel agents pointing out the law in this area. It is hoped this will lead to an improvement in how these traders deal with their customers when holidays have had to be cancelled.  However, if we find evidence that companies are failing to comply with the law, then TSS will take appropriate enforcement action, which could ultimately include taking a business to court if it does not address our concerns.”


Anyone who has encountered problems arising from cancelled holidays and requires advice should contact Consumerline on 0300 123 6262.


Note:


1. For advice on cancelled holidays visit: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/coronavirus-covid-19-consumer-advice-holiday-bookings


2. The Competition and Markets Authority issued a statement in April 2020 outlining its views on consumer protection law in relation to cancellations and refunds during the current crisis. While the statement covers a range of consumer contracts and different situations, it concludes that, in most cases, the CMA would expect a full refund to be offered if:


  • a business has cancelled a contract without providing any of the promised goods or services;

  • no service is provided by a business, even when this is prevented by restrictions that apply during the current lockdown; or

  • a consumer is prevented from receiving any services, because of the restrictions that apply during the current lockdown.


3. Complaints about airlines are being dealt with by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which has lead responsibility for the enforcement of consumer law as it applies to air travel. The CAA has announced that it is reviewing how airlines are handling refunds during the Coronavirus pandemic. The review is available at https://www.caa.co.uk/News/UK-Civil-Aviation-Authority-reviewing-airline-refunds/. An update to this work was published on 1 July and is available at https://www.caa.co.uk/News/UK-Civil-Aviation-Authority-update-on-airline-refunds-review/. The CAA has also published guidance and advice on refunds for industry and consumers. A copy is available at

https://www.caa.co.uk/COVID-19/


4. The Trading Standards Service’s review of the complaints made to Consumerline indicates that businesses may have engaged in, and may still be engaging in, certain practices contrary to consumer law. In particular, these complaints suggest that:


  • businesses have not been meeting the requirements of the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018 (“PTRs”). These provide a statutory requirement to provide refunds without undue delay and in any event not later than 14 days from termination.

  • businesses have been engaging in unfair commercial practices, for example, providing inadequate or misleading information to consumers about their statutory rights. This is potentially in breach of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (“CPRs”).

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