Barrhead Travel president Jacqueline Dobson says charges are the hidden burden of this crisis

The damage Covid-19 has inflicted on our industry has been well-documented over the last few months. That includes the chaos caused by having to refund thousands upon thousands of bookings; the much-loved businesses that became early casualties of the virus; and, most recently, the completely disjointed quarantine approach that has left our industry fragmented with different rules for different regions.

The list of damages, challenges and setbacks feels almost endless. Many of our biggest challenges have good industry narrative and conversation surrounding them which, while it doesn’t make these issues any easier, certainly feels like there may be paths forward.

There are, however, several lasting and potentially very damaging issues which do not have the same volume of debate right now but are causing – and will continue to cause – huge problems for our industry. One of these issues is duplicate credit card charges, which are drinking up valuable cash resources of many smaller businesses.

New rules…

Back in 2018, retailers were served with new regulations about handling credit and debit card fees. Having previously been able to pass the charges on to our customers, retailers and travel agencies alike now had to find a way to absorb these not insignificant costs to their businesses. As we always do, travel businesses found a way forward, despite being one of the only types of retailer whose customers can make multiple credit card transactions to pay for their product.

Just like the Package Travel Regulations, these regulations – the EU Payment Services Directive, or PSD2 – were undoubtably not designed to account for mass refunds in the event of a global pandemic. Travel will be one of only very few retail industries that are being forced to refund up to an entire quarter year’s worth of transactions.

Ahead of the directive, Stephen Barclay, who was the economic secretary at the Treasury, described the move as being “about fairness and transparency” for British consumers. Right now, it seems there is very little fairness or transparency about asking travel retailers to foot the bill for credit card charges, not just once but sometimes twice.

…new costs

For many travel retailers, this twice-paid fee amounts to a consequential amount of cashflow – some may even be looking at up to 2% of their revenue costs. There is, of course, the option to charge an administration or handling fee, but at a time when general consumer confidence could be lower than normal, and when demonstrating trust in the high street travel agency is more important than ever, now may not be the right time to suddenly switch this option on.

Duplicate credit card charges are not an issue that will evaporate when travel resumes. We should be realistic in our projections that there is every possibility a geographical lockdown could happen again or further cancellations for a particular destination enforced.

We must start future-proofing this issue now and address it as an industry. To that end, our team at Barrhead Travel and our partners at the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association are actively lobbying for acknowledgment and support from the government to put pressure on credit card companies. Sadly, but perhaps not unsurprisingly, there has been no government support as of yet. But we will continue to lobby in the hope that meaningful conversations will begin.

The financial crisis of the travel industry feels like it comes from all angles – from refunds to cancellations and credit card charges. When will the travel industry stop being penalised for financial burdens that are out of its control? Not any time soon, it seems. But our industry is resilient and resourceful, and I know we will adapt to whatever the ‘new normal’ for travel will become.

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