Coronavirus: Agents call for clarity on refund rules

Travel agents are calling for greater clarity from operators about refunds – and from the government about financial support amid the coronavirus crisis.

A government decision on a suspension of consumer refund rules of the Package Travel Regulations is expected this week.

Abta has been lobbying for a suspension of the legal requirement to refund consumers in full within 14 days of cancellation, requiring a temporary change to the PTRs.

Three agents – one from the high street, one homeworker and one online travel agency – made their plea for clearer information during a video interview with Travel Weekly editor-in-chief Lucy Huxley.

Helen Furlong, a homeworking Personal Travel Agent with Midcounties Co-operative, said guidance from tour operators about refunds and credit notes has been “wishy washy”.

Inconsistent responses from tour operators presented the “biggest tension” for clients, she said.

“We need consistency of advice from tour operators. You cannot have one-size-fits-all but there should be quite a good size that fits most,” she said.

Mark Swords, owner of Swords Travel – which has a high street shop in Wimbledon – is finding it hard to give straightforward, clear answers to clients about refunds and credit vouchers.

“All we want is some clarity, showing we are backed by Abta and the government, so we can say [to clients] ‘this is the process at the moment’,” he said.

“As soon as customers know that’s legal and it’s protected…if people are getting credit notes and that money is safe, then that’s a different scenario.

“You can reassure customers, and you can reassure them that everybody across the board is doing that.”

He said he is pointing clients to the advice on the Abta website which says protection on refund credit notes will extend to July 31.

Alex Tsirimiagos, head of revenue management at online travel agency TravelUp, added: “A lot of our partners and suppliers have been very helpful but we need the government to step in and provide clarity.”

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All three also wanted financial support from the government to be quicker and easier to access.

Swords said initial announcements of support packages sounded positive but the details had shown the situation was more complex.

Three of the four people at the agency are now on the government’s new furloughed staff scheme – two employees and Mark’s husband Stuart – but he still needs to pay them. He can claim 80% of wages back from HMRC but worries about cashflow in the meantime.

Furthermore, he has been charged bank fees for extending his overdraft and the government’s coronavirus business interruption loan will take weeks to process.

Fortunately, he is entitled to a £10,000 grant from his local council which may be paid sooner than the grant to cover wages.

Furlong said that paying back commission for cancelled holidays meant she and her husband have effectively lost two months of pay.

“It will only be a couple of months before we are in real trouble,” she said.

However, she said being part of the Midcounties Co-operative was helpful as the group should be able to provide support.

Swords Travel is part of The Travel Network Group and Swords praised the consortium for its help and advice during the crisis.

Tsirimiagos said: “We need the government to recognise the specifics of the travel industry – not everyone can be on the furlough scheme.

“We are dealing with 37,000 inquiries from clients so we cannot furlough staff.”

He has moved from his usual role to help with customer queries, refunds and rebookings.

Furlong said the response from her clients had been “unbelievable” as they have been patient and understanding – and she has been able to help support them, even at 11pm or midnight, warning travellers not to go to airports because of the closure of borders.

Swords also said his clients have been understanding about the refund dilemma, and the agency has only had two cancellations.

Naturally, the priority at the moment is to help customers who need repatriating, refunds or rebooking, but the agents have been thinking about their post-crisis recovery.

Swords said the marketing messages needed to be “subtle” and “inspirational” as people don’t want to be sold holidays at the moment.

Tsirimiagos said: “The crisis will end and all companies need to think hard about how to emerge.

“Customers will come flooding back to book immediately so we need to be agile and dynamic.

“In parallel to managing the crisis, we are thinking about how we will emerge stronger and smarter.”

Furlong said there is some interest in the market for ski holidays next winter but warned: “The worst thing that can happen is to be in the same position in the future – we need [regulations] to be tightened up, we need to look at the whole industry.”

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