Consumer protection for people buying air travel must be addressed in the wake of Covid-19, according to the boss of Travel Counsellors.
Chief executive Steve Byrne said action must be taken to change the current laws when the industry emerges from the crisis.
Speaking in a Travel Weekly Webcast, he said: “We should take a step back and reflect on what underlying problem are we trying to solve here? To me, the problem that needs to be addressed is how can you have a scheme of financial protection that protects the customer when they’re booking with an airline either directly or indirectly. That is the fundamental thing that needs to be fixed when we come out of this.”
Asked if he thought the industry’s reputation had been damaged by the way it had handled the travel shutdown, he said: “I’ve seen some of the headlines. I think they are regrettable, but understandable.”
And he was not completely confident of new regulation coming in.
“It’s so divided now, isn’t it? The chance for us to speak with one voice has probably gone, which is sad and I think a missed opportunity, but you can understand the reasons for it.
“I’m not one to preach because I haven’t been proactive in the debate. I’ve been so focused on the Travel Counsellors and supporting our people. But I think once we’re through it – once we are through this as a country – we’re going to reflect on how we dealt with this as a nation and a government.
“And within travel, we’ve got to focus on the problem and the biggest opportunity, and my personal, humble view, is that the biggest opportunity is how do you protect the customer when they’re making a booking with an airline directly or in or indirectly? That would be the one thing, that if I had a platform, that I’d be focusing on, because it’s that which has caused the biggest amount of pain for customer and for travel suppliers.”
Byrne said he had not waited for the government to step in to help the industry through the crisis.
“I haven’t spent any of my time hoping, wondering, planning on the basis that the government will change the rules, because I can’t control it,” he said. “I’m really interested in it. And if something happens, I want to capitalise on it, as we have with the government support for self-employed people.” But he advised: “Focus on what you can control.”
Byrne explained: “You can control your mindset, the support that you give your people and what you do for your customers. Everything else is just icing on the cake.”
He said he thought those businesses operating a trust fund model, as Travel Counsellors does, were in a stronger position.
“There’s no doubt that if you are running your business through the profit that you make and retain and not using customer money, that enforces a discipline on you that is profoundly different to other types of models.
“But I’m seeing that as a competitive advantage to Travel Counsellors and the few businesses that do the same.
“If other people want to operate like that, that’s up to them. But from a competitive point of view I’m happy that we’ve that we’ve got that model in place.”
Byrne said any travel company that had given really good personal service since the lockdown and with dealing with cancelled holidays would ultimately benefit.
“Travel companies are having a tough time of it and I think there’s more challenging times to come as the JRS [Job Retention Scheme] is unwound etc, but lots of customers sadly have had a terrible experience where they’ve not been dealt with in a personal way.
“Those travel businesses – both tour operators or travel agents – up and down the country, that take pride in personal service and doing the right thing by the customer, will benefit from this in the long run.”
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