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Kulula inundated with booking queries as flights resume, amid frustration over 'no refunds' policy

How to get a refund via credit card bookings

Wendy Knowler Consumer journalist
The biggest frustration arising from the grounding is Kulula’s 'no refunds' policy. File photo.
The biggest frustration arising from the grounding is Kulula’s 'no refunds' policy. File photo.
Image: Esa Alexander/Sunday Times

Comair’s announcement that its Kulula and British Airways planes were to take to the skies again from early Thursday morning has been met with relief by some but irritation by those who’ve bought alternative tickets on other airlines, at great cost.

The SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) withdrew Comair’s operating licence on Saturday due to concerns about its safety management systems in the wake of three “significant” failures on recent flights.

On Wednesday evening, the CAA lifted the suspension, saying the audit and assessment of Comair’s submissions after the suspension of the company’s operating licence at the weekend had been completed. Comair said late on Wednesday the CAA had made “no safety and security findings regarding either flight operations or maintenance”.

“Yhuu, I wish I saw this (announcement) before booking my flight with the now overpriced Flysafair!” tweeted @FefeliciousD.

Consumers do have another way of getting their money back when an airline cancels a flight and doesn’t provide an appropriate alternative — provided they paid with a credit card

Kulula advised those with bookings from Thursday morning onwards to go to the airport as normal, but those who needed to rebook cancelled flights were urged to call the contact centre.

Given the number of people affected — Comair holds 40% of the domestic airline market’s seats — the call centre didn't appear to be coping with booking requests on Thursday morning.

“I am trying to rebook my return flight and your call centre says the dialled number is busy; can we book online?” tweeted Daya Coetzee.

“I will have nowhere to stay at all if I can’t book a flight back now. Very frustrating again.”

The biggest frustration arising from the grounding is Kulula’s “no refunds” policy.

While British Airways' domestic ticket holders can apply for a refund on cancelled flights — and expect to get their money back in six to eight weeks, “or longer”, Comair warns, given the numbers involved — their Kulula customers have been offered a credit, valid for only six months.

Asked to explain the difference in policy, a Comair spokesperson said: “Comair operates British Airways flights on a franchise basis and consequently British Airways’ 'Book with Confidence' policy applies to those services.”

The company has declined to be drawn on why its Kulula customers weren’t being refunded for their cancelled tickets.

Is there any recourse for flyers?

Asked to comment on whether Kulula’s no-refunds policy was legally justified, the office of the ombudsman for consumer goods and services said it was not ready to release a statement but pointed TimesLIVE to section 47 of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA).

That section, headed “Over-selling and over-booking”, states that if a company commits to supply services on a specified date and fails to do so, or supply “similar or comparable goods or services”, it must refund the consumer, with interest, plus any costs “directly incidental to their breach of the contract”.

A company can avoid refunds if its failure to supply a service was due to circumstances “beyond its control’’, but not if that failure was a result of its failure — directly or indirectly — “to adequately and diligently carry out any ordinary or routine matter pertaining to the supplier’s business”.

Asked to weigh in on the issue, the National Consumer Commission said it was still engaging with Comair and the CAA.

“In terms of section 95 of the CPA, the commission must engage with the regulator (in this case the Civil Aviation Authority) when it identifies practices that are inconsistent with the CPA,” said the NCC’s media liaison officer Phetho Ntaba.

But she said, “S47 does not apply to this matter as this does not concern overbooking or selling”.

How to get a refund via credit card bookings

Consumers do have another way of getting their money back when an airline cancels a flight and doesn’t provide an appropriate alternative — provided they paid with a credit card.

They can approach the bank which issued their credit card, provide proof of the non-delivery and lodge a chargeback dispute, in terms of which their bank approaches the service provider’s bank to recall the funds.

Time limits do apply, and they differ from bank to bank.

Fuelling the demand for refunds from Comair is that alternative tickets have come at a hefty price on competitor airlines.

SAA, Flysafair and Lift have denied accusations that they exploited the situation by hiking their prices, saying the last-sold seats on any flight were always the most expensive.

CONTACT WENDY: E-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za; Twitter: @wendyknowler; Facebook: wendyknowlerconsumer

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