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4 April 2024

Image is of a hand holding a smart phone with a boarding pass on the screen. The background is a runway scene at an airport. A plane is flying through a sunset strewn sky.

Written by Dr. Scott Hollier, CEO of Centre for Accessibility Australia.

Buying everyday products online – such as airline tickets – can be a quick and simple process. Customers may have the impression that a credit or refund is easily accessible in the event of an issue, even if they carefully read the Terms of Service before making a purchase. That was not the case, however, when a blind Flight Centre customer received a denial of service, potentially subject to discriminatory and consumer law violations, and was not given any credit or reimbursement.

Dr. Scott Hollier, CEO of Centre for Accessibility Australia (CFA Australia) and 2022 Australian of the Year Finalist, had intended to travel to Adelaide to present at the ATSA Independent Living Expo as part of his role in promoting digital accessibility. Unfortunately, when he became unexpectedly ill, complications arose with Flight Centre.

For these trips, Dr. Hollier usually books via other travel agencies, but this time a colleague noted a good offer on Flight Centre’s website and made the booking, making sure that the Terms of Service did not prohibit any possible cancellations or claims for credit or refund in the event that complications emerged. Regretfully, Flight Centre made it nearly impossible to receive any kind of credit or reimbursement when Dr. Hollier fell ill and the flights had to be cancelled, initially because of problems with digital access.

At first, the issue was that all correspondence had to come from the same email address that was on file. Because Dr. Hollier was ill and his colleague was attempting to cancel the trip on his behalf, this proved impossible. Calling on the same number did not get through, which resulted in a denial of service. This call, however, was made prior to the flight leaving, so valuable time was wasted in cancelling the flight before it departed. As Dr Hollier didn’t check in there was clear evidence the flight was not used.

Following several hours of attempting without success to have Flight Centre acknowledge the request, contact was made the next day through the relevant email address. Flight Centre informed that any credit or refund was likely too late at this point and that it was a Qantas issue rather than theirs, citing a requirement for a medical certificate.

As the agreement failed to explicitly outline this condition, it became impractical to secure the necessary documentation the following day. Complicating matters further, Dr. Hollier resides in a rural town situated approximately 100 kilometers away from his general practitioner. In response to this, Dr. Hollier issued a Statutory Declaration certifying his illness, which is permissible in the majority of cases, according to the Fair Work Commissioner website.

Flight Centre persisted in refusing to provide credit or a refund for the unused flights, despite Dr. Hollier’s explanation that obtaining a medical certificate was impossible at the time. He had made every effort to address the issue before the scheduled flights, yet no documentation indicated that credit or a refund would be unavailable in the event of cancellation. Additionally, Flight Centre wrongly attributed the issue to Qantas. Furthermore, there was no clarification provided that Qantas’ Terms of Service applied to the booking.

Under consumer law, a replacement or refund should be available if a service is not available. Likewise, to ignore a statutory declaration which outlined the specific scenario that prevented a medical certificate from being obtained, suggests a possible breach of Section 24 of the Disability Discrimination Act in which it is illegal to deny the provision of services based on disability.

“The intentional placement of a digital access issue, requiring the same e-mail address as the only mechanism to make a refund or credit enquiry despite having clear evidence of the phone number, address, credit card used, and office address was the catalyst for this entire situation,” said Dr. Hollier. “If my colleague had been able to have the initial e-mail or phone conversation recognised as a path-to-action, the flights could have been easily rescheduled prior to taking place, and none of this would have been an issue.”

As of now, CFA Australia has spent nearly seven hours on the phone trying to obtain a credit or refund, but without success. Despite requesting in writing for the matter to be escalated, they have not received any reply. CFA Australia welcomes the opportunity to discuss the matter but will be filing a complaint through appropriate channels such as the ACCC and the Retail Industry Ombudsman if the issue is not addressed.