Travel plans and flights canceled by COVID leave tens of thousands of Australians out of pocket years later

Helloworld headquarters did not respond to numerous requests for comment on whether the parent company had a legal or moral responsibility to help customers surprised by its franchisee’s bankruptcy.

Consumer Champion’s Adam Glezer, who contacted Helloworld on behalf of Bouronikos, said: “I believe that if a customer books through a Helloworld franchise that goes bankrupt, Helloworld head office should bear some responsibility, but they simply direct clients to the administrator.

For Sydney’s Hamish Bowman, it was a similar story, with months of emails assuring him Qantas refunds were on their way. He had booked a family trip to France with his elderly father and other family members; her father is now 86 and less mobile, so the opportunity has passed.

Hamish Bowman booked through Member Benefits Australia, but the booking was actually made with a Helloworld franchise.Credit:Steven Siewert

He said Qantas later told him that not only did they never receive the money, but the travel company made changes to the booking every month until the flight was cancelled, which which had the effect of delaying the payment due date.

But for Bowman, the situation is more complicated as he booked through another entity, Member Benefits Australia, which he said offered a good deal at the time because of its link to the University of Sydney.

Bowman said it was never revealed that the booking would actually be owned by Helloworld, let alone a Helloworld franchise in suburban Melbourne, and he wouldn’t have booked if he had known. that was the case.

The Herald of the Sun and Sunday age have copies of email correspondence between Bowman and its travel agency representatives who used a Member Benefits Australia email address. In one case, the email was from [email protected], but company records reveal the name in the signature was that of a director of the Helloworld Plenty Valley company.

As recently as January 2021, those emails said they were “still struggling to get funds physically returned” by vendors.

By the time Bowman realized there was a major problem with the refund and tried to reverse the credit card payment from the bank, it was too late. Its travel insurance only covered the insolvency of a travel supplier such as an airline, not a travel agency.

Glezer approached Member Benefits Australia several times on Bowman’s behalf, to no avail. Once The Herald of the Sun and Sunday age sent questions about the role and liability of Member Benefits Australia, a solicitor contacted Bowman.

The letter to the Bowman family says the company accepts no liability but would provide a full refund provided they sign an agreement not to disparage or criticize the company, including “that there is no mention of MBA in an article proposed in the Sydney Morning Herald”.

Bowman said he wanted the story to happen despite the offer. “I think there is [too] many organizations that disrespect consumers and only react when they see a risk to themselves,” he said.

Glezer said he would take the matter to NSW Civil and Administrative Court if it could not be resolved in advance.

“It’s disappointing that MBA only offered to return Hamish’s funds in exchange for their name being removed from this article and not because they wanted to do the right thing for their client,” Glezer said. .

The official statement from Member Benefits Australia provided to this masthead reads: ‘MBA is reviewing its legal position and is unable to comment further.’

Jodi Bird, a travel expert at consumer advocacy organization Choice, encouraged Bowman to complain to NSW Fair Trading and said the industry needed a complete overhaul of regulations to improve transparency.

“This story is similar to many others we have seen during the pandemic, where Australians have paid a company for travel arrangements involving a range of other suppliers and it is unclear where their money went,” said said Bird.

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“Many people are also unaware that when they book with a national travel agency brand, they are often booking with a local franchisee rather than the national company.”

Glezer said he advocates mandatory trust accounts for travel agents to protect customers’ money.

“Lawyers need trust accounts, real estate agents need trust accounts, why don’t travel agents need them?” said Glézer.

“All three are dealing with funds that are destined for a third party.”

Federation of Australian Travel Agents chief executive Dean Long said the devastating impact of the COVID outbound travel ban meant that around a third of Australian travel agents were considering closing, and most did so neatly and appropriately.

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