Your rights when dealing with airlines
The diversity of airlines and travel options means that more people than ever in history now fly commercially either for work or leisure. Experiences of airline travel vary – well they do for me at least. Sometimes it is a pleasant (or at least not terrible) experience with enjoyable in-flight entertainment, a polite person seated alongside (or even better a vacant seat), no turbulence, and seamless transitions from the terminal to aircraft, and successfully ending with baggage collection. Other times some of those elements fail, resulting in a less than enjoyable experience, or worse, an accident. As a customer of airline services, it is important you are aware of your rights and how to assert them. This applies to minor issues such as finding out who to complaint to when your baggage is lost, to very serious instances relating to the airlines’ liability for injury or loss of life.
How you’re covered under the law
The principle law regulating airlines’ responsibilities to passengers in Australia is the Civil Aviation (Carriers’ Liability) Act 1959 (Cth) which, for international travel, gives effect to the international Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air (“The 1999 Montreal Convention”). It also controls airline responsibility for domestic flights.
This legislation sets out when an airline (called a carrier) is liable for:
♦ the death of a passenger;
♦ any injury suffered by you as a passenger;
♦ and the destruction, loss, or injury of your baggage.
However, there may also be circumstances when you might have an issue with an airline’s service that doesn’t necessarily fall under the legislation.
This could involve:
♦ flight delays or cancellations;
♦ telephone or internet reservations;
♦ customer service at the airport or inflight;
♦ baggage services;
♦ fees and charges;
♦ safety and security;
♦ airport lounge facilities;
♦ frequent flyer program terms and conditions;
♦ services for customers with specific needs;
♦ and requests for refunds.
In such cases, we generally recommend passengers make a complaint directly to the airline, at the time of the issue or incident, if possible.
How to make a complaint
All Australian airlines have information on how to deal with disputes in their ‘Customer Charter’ or similar document. The customer charter is an outline of the airline’s commitment to the customer and should be found on their website. Most accept complaints or feedback in the ‘contact us’ section of their website. If your complaint is unresolved after: you have already tried to resolve your complaint directly with the airline; you have sought a review of the response; you have allowed for the timeframes specified in the customer charter; and the complaint is related to an event or circumstances that occurred within the last 12 months, you can lodge a complaint with the Airline Customer Advocate.
This is an industry based scheme to facilitate the resolution of complaints from customers about airline service provided by the participating Australian airlines (Jetstar, Qantas, Rex, Tiger, Virgin Australia). Once the Airline Customer Advocate receives your complaint they will review it and follow up with you if they need to clarify any details. They will then assign your complaint to a case manager at the airline concerned. The case manager may contact you to attempt to resolve the complaint directly with you but they have a responsibility to prepare a written response to you that will first be reviewed by the Airline Customer Advocate. You will receive a response within 20 working days.
Still not satisfied?
If you are not satisfied with the outcome, the Airline Customer Advocate will advise you about alternative avenues for dispute resolution. This is a useful avenue for passengers to adopt when they feel underwhelmed with their airline’s service, or feel unfairly treated. There is a lot that can be done by way of “self-help” without involving a lawyer, when dealing with an airline.
The Legal Eagle would like to thank our supersonic advocate and lawyer Joseph Wheeler for this piece.
For further guidance, drop him a line at Australia’s Air & Space Lawyers (IALPG): firstname.lastname@example.org.