Airline policy bites late travellers

KELLY DENNETT
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2014
Lucy Mullinger and Brett Allen
Fairfax NZ
TRAVEL NIGHTMARE: Whangarei couple Lucy Mullinger and Brett Allen managed to reclaim $4000 after they were charged twice for the same flight.

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A little-known airline policy nearly ruined the holiday of a lifetime for a Northland couple who are warning others to be wary of the dreaded fine print.

After misreading their itinerary Lucy Mullinger and partner Brett Allen missed their May 10 Malaysia Airlines flight from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur.

To add insult to injury the pair fell foul of airline policy that dictated when the first leg of a flight is missed the rest are automatically cancelled.

Mullinger and Allen were informed by STA Travel their ensuing flights - from Malaysia to London, and on to Istanbul, and back to Auckland - would be declared no-shows despite being some weeks in the future.

The pair were also shocked to learn that instead of simply being charged a change fee they'd have to shell out another $4100 with the travel agency to take the rest of the trip .

"We were heartbroken," Mullinger said. "We effectively paid twice for the exact same seats on the same flight."

It's a scenario often presented to travel expert and consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, author of How to be the World's Smartest Traveler.

Although it's common practice for airlines to cancel return flights when the first departure is missed, Elliott said the policy is unfair and isn't common knowledge among infrequent travellers.

Consumers who've fallen victim to the fine print "very rarely" receive a refund, he said.

The rules are to stop people "gaming" the system by booking cheaper flights on round trip tickets and then ditching the flight when they've reached their desired destination - a practice commonly known as "hidden city", "back-to-back" or "throwaway", he said.

"The second reason is that the airline would like the opportunity to resell your seat, so it is very much about the money," he said.

"I think airlines should not assume that because you missed one leg, you won't use the rest of the ticket. You paid for the ticket, you should be able to use it."

A spokeswoman from Malaysia Airlines' Auckland sales office said its policy assumed travellers couldn't make the return leg.

She was surprised Mullinger and Allen had been recharged the full amount and said rebooking seats was usually a matter of paying a no-show fee to cover the meals and wasted space on the initial flight.

If there is still space available on the remaining route the agent should charge the no-show fee plus the fare difference if the original seats weren't available, she said.

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"The agent should have done exactly this," the spokeswoman said. "It's very straightforward."

STA Travel Asia and New Zealand managing director Andrew Gay said the rules of the fare were "cut and dry" and the travel agent was correct in advising Mullinger a refund wasn't possible.

"To the letter of the rules, the fare was non-refundable," he said.

Subsequent to calls from the Sunday Star-Times, Gay said that considering the couple had chosen to rebook the flights with the same airline he'd applied discretion in the matter and had agreed to refund the second lot of flights, adding "$4000 is a lot to pay for a silly mistake."

Mullinger welcomed the refund but is shocked she had to fight for it and said the situation had been confusing.

"I feel a bit frustrated. Nobody told me if we missed one flight we'd miss the whole thing. If I'd known that was the case I would happily have paid for a different ticket option. In the future I'm going to deal with the airline directly."

- Sunday Star Times

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