Recently, I received a long e-mail from a reader.
Coming right at the beginning of the year, her e-mail was loaded with frustration and not so kind words directed at airlines.
In her words, she has had it with airlines dodging and always finding reasons not to refund her for services not rendered.
And when they are not playing dodge, the process is bureaucratic, layered in inefficiency and at best, tedious.
On more than one occasion, she has threatened legal action to aloof airlines, whose staff seemed to find her threats laughable.
She ended her e-mail by stating that in the instances she has succeeded in getting a refund, it was because of her tenacity.
To a large extent I agreed with her. It takes less than three minutes to buy a ticket on any of the airlines’ websites but you are lucky if it will take three or even 30 days to get a refund.
Do airlines make it deliberately difficult to get refunds?
Here are a few things to understand about airlines, cancellations and refunds.
First, airlines like any other commercial concern have refund policy guidelines derived from their terms and conditions of services, in this case the Conditions of Carriage.
Second, these conditions of carriage — which act as a binding contract the moment money is exchanged for a ticket — clearly indicate that tickets are sold subject to tariff or fare regulations.
Spare some time to ask and understand the conditions around a fare before paying for it.
It always starts with the marketed fare which many travellers buy without reading and understanding the full conditions.
Each fare has its conditions which inform in the case of cancellation — for whatever reasons — whether one is eligible for a partial, full or no refund at all.
Third, keep in mind that there might be cancellation with the aim of changing the flight or travel date commonly referred to as change of reservation or ticket change, for which one is not necessarily looking for a refund.
The fact that a cancellation is allowed does not automatically imply that a refund is in the offing.
It is advisable to always buy the fare that offers at least one free change or change at a fee but not the cheaper highly restricted fare that offers nil refund possibilities.
Fourth, the specific fare rules on a ticket even where refunds are allowed often have restrictions on amount refundable if any, based on how far or close to travel date the cancellation has been made.
Fifth, where you cannot make it for your flight due to circumstances beyond your control like sudden illness, accidents or bereavement, some airlines will provide a credit note upon demonstration of strict proof.
Otherwise most of them consider “no show” tickets non-refundable.
Sixth, understand that the cause of conflict around this subject is not whether there will be a refund or not, but rather even after explicitly accepting to refund, the process is lengthy and can drag on.
What is amazing is that in small print, airlines explicitly inform their customers that all refund claims are settled at the discretion of the airline.
Further, most if not all airlines are not very clear on the time it should take from claim to refund.
Seventh, even where a refund is approved, the money is usually sent back to the form of payment used to make the purchase hence a ticket paid for via credit card will be refunded to the card used to pay less “charges.”
Likewise, if the ticket was purchased through a travel agency the claim and refund is likely to be handled through the agency.
What’s more infuriating is that after the wait, the refund might be less other deductions apart from the transaction charges.
Many passengers find themselves caught in between — with the airline referring everything to the agent and the agent blaming the airline for delays in processing refunds.
Last, before you rush to court, realise that the odds are already stacked against you since you have signed up for and are bound by the airlines conditions from the moment you paid for a ticket.
Unlike in other parts of the world, consumer protection laws in East Africa with regard to air travel are weak, if non-existent and might not be of help.
In the absence of such laws, airlines sit pretty and bask in the knowledge that industry guidelines as provided by IATA will prevail.
Take time to understand the terms and conditions of the fare, cancellation and refund policy before purchasing a ticket.
Michael Otieno is an aviation consultant and travel writer based in Nairobi. Twitter: @mosafariz; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org