Passengers are often left in limbo if flights go wrong

Travellers are being shunted between booking agents and airlines when seeking compensations for delays and cancellations

There is an example of Peter John, he had reached the departure to Ethiopia when the plane was cancelled because of a technical problem. The airline paid him the compensation as EC regulations but he could not claim a refund for the ticket there and then. So why could not claim it? Because he had booked it through online agent Expedia.

He says “Obtaining a refund from Expedia proved impossible. I called customer services numerous times and they failed to get back to me, put me on hold for half an hour then disconnected me and said they’d escalate the complaint, then ignored me.” After five months later, he was still waiting his £631 of ticket.

Expedia, which promptly authorised the refund when the Observer intervened, it blamed the airline for delays in passing on the fare but it admitted it had let John down and apologised with a £200 voucher. A spokesman says “This was an extremely rare incident and is not a typical reflection of our service,”.

So we can see that John’s case illustrates the pitfalls of using a third-party agent to book flights. When things go according to plan, these websites can be a boon to the DIY traveller, providing price comparisons across a scale of airlines and deals that often work out cheaper than booking directly through the carrier. But when flights are cancelled or delayed, or there is a hitch with the bookings process, that customers often find themselves shunted between agent and airline for compensations.

Another case of Ahmed Hussein booked five tickets via Opodo for a flight to Dubai, he was told the transaction had not gone through and he could rebook over the phone through Opodo’s stablemate eDreams. Later he discovered he had been charged for both transactions.

Opodo told that the airline had the money and he would have to claim from them; then the airline insisted that since he had booked through Opodo they could not deal with him. Hussein says “I therefore have a double booking for the same travellers on the same flight and neither Opodo nor the airline is willing to refund me the £2,140 I overpaid,”.

Scott Salter, a man also faced an identical battle when an error on Opodo’s website caused him to be debited twice for a flight to New York. He was told to cancel the superfluous booking with the airline and send confirmation of this to Opodo for a refund: “When I call customer services I am kept on hold, then the call drops and my emails are not replied to.”

So Opodo says both cases were being dealt with media involvement, although both passengers received their refunds, for example, Salter got £60 in compensation for the “inconvenience” a week after this paper intervened.

Most are unaware that when booking a flight through an online agent their contract is often with the airline, not the agent. However, airlines tend to insist complaints are directed through the booking agent, leaving some customers reliant on faceless intermediaries who tend to be more interested in sales than resolutions.

Andrew Leakey, head of dispute resolution at Stephensons solicitors says “If you are buying a flight only, booking direct through the airline resolves a lot of these problems, even if it costs a bit more. If you use an agent you have to study the terms and conditions to establish whether it is them or the airline that is responsible should problems arise.

 “If it’s the airline and the agent won’t help, write to the former stating that you require the specified sum by a specified date or else you will take them to court. If the terms and conditions aren’t clear and neither will co-operate, you will have to cite both as defendants if you decide to bring a small claim against them.”

The agent is also supposed to provide details of schedule changes or cancellations, this means that crucial information has to filter through two companies before it reaches the passenger, if it reaches them at all.

For Bianca Rampat, she had reached the check-in for her return flight from Vietnam when she realized it had been cancelled and the next flight was six days later. She didn’t receive any warning from the booking agent Travel Trolley, and it insisted it had not been notified by Vietnam Airlines.

The government tightened up protection for trips booked via third-party agents by extending the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing scheme (Atol) to non-package holidays 3 years ago. An Atol certificate allows customers to alternative travel or a refund if an airline, agent or hotel goes bust, but this only applies if you book a flight with accommodation or car hire from the same agent at the same time. So if you’ve just paid for a flight, you are left to bear the loss without the safety net of the Consumer Credit Act.

The risks seem to be increased if you use one of the vaunted advantages of comparison websites and book an itinerary relating to more than one airline. This can bring a good deal cheaper than a direct route with a single carrier. But this saving can become costly if you get delay or cancellation on the journey, it causes you to miss a connecting flight with a different company. And the second company has no obligation to refund the unused ticket, nor is it liable to compensate you, and the first airline is not responsible for any losses incurred by the missed connection if that is with a different carrier.

We can realize that most transactions through agents carried out smoothly, but complaints from customers who have hit a brick wall trying to get what they paid for have been clogging the Observer’s inbox. Erroneous debits and desultory communications are the most common grievances, and it is often with the larger the company and the more impenetrable its customer services.

According to Expedia, it said 89% of customers who reviewed its service on rated it “good” or “excellent”, and it was voted Britain’s favourite online travel agency and best flight booking company in the British Travel Awards. A spokesman says “On occasions where we receive customer complaints we take these extremely seriously,”.

Bravofly also says it offers 24/7 customer service as customer satisfaction is a priority. its spokesman says “We always work hard with our airline partners to resolve any requirements they might have,”.

And Opodo says its average handling time for valid repayment claims is 3.5 working days, and that 99.98% of claims this year have been resolved in time.

Therefore, customers should minimise the risks of being left high and dry by following this simple checklist, it’s helpful for your travelling.

■ Use a member of the Association of British Travel Agents. Its code of conduct requires agents to help resolve customer issues and an arbitration scheme steps in if this doesn’t happen satisfactorily.

■ Book accommodation or car hire at the same time as the flight so you are protected by Atol, and make sure you receive the online Atol certificate.

■ Avoid itineraries with more than one airline in favour of a through route with a single carrier so you can claim a refund for the whole journey if delays cause you to miss a connection.

■ Booking directly through an airline removes reliance on an intermediary if things go wrong, but these transactions are not Atol-protected.

■ Scheduled airline failure insurance is offered by many agents if you are not Atol protected when an airline goes bust.

■ Read the terms and conditions before you book to establish if your contract is with the agent or the airline – and check extra costs in terms and conditions. Some agents charge fees for, say, amending a booking, on top of any charges levied by the airline.

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