If we want the travel industry to survive for the future, consumers must find a way to be more flexible now
I never thought I'd write these words, but I think the time has come for consumers to be more flexible. We need to put our own rights into a new context and start thinking about the implications of what is happening to the travel industry.
I say this having spent much of my working life holding airlines, tour operators and other holiday companies to account, exposing shoddy, sometimes dishonest service and campaigning for better consumer rights.
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But I've never seen anything like the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. And I'm not talking about the short-term disruption. Because we plan, book and pay for travel often months in advance, the effects of the virus on tourism will last for the whole of 2020. Probably much longer.
It is a seismic shock to one of the world's biggest industries, and an acute, existential threat to many of the companies that operate within it. Sure, slowly and eventually, life will get back to normal. But we don't want to delay that resumption by seeing chunks of the industry collapse.
Let's look at the grim reality from the point of view of an airline, tour operator, hotel, or one of the many businesses that form the backbone of that industry. They work on tight margins and they depend for their profits (and their survival) on a steady turnover of bookings. These bring funds in advance for some (such as airlines and tour operators) and in arrears for agents who depend on commissions, or hotels, often paid only when guests have left.
These companies are now spending all their efforts handing money back. Not only does this threaten their future, but none of them — especially those that were built to trade online — have enough staff to cope with a sudden and extreme shift in the way they have to work. Those employees they do have are stressed, in fear of their jobs and livelihoods. What's more, as the virus spreads, more of them are getting ill, leaving companies even more short-staffed.
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Employees are also having to deal with anxious, impatient customers desperate to get their money back. And I know, from the tone of some who have contacted me, that not all these customers are understanding or reasonable in their expectations.
We are all worried about the financial consequences of the virus, but I have been impressed by the efforts of the travel industry to mitigate the problem. Most are doing their level best to help — and many are doing their utmost to be flexible.
Strictly speaking, customers are usually entitled to a cash refund in such circumstances. But many companies, in their struggle to survive, are trying to persuade people to accept a postponement — rebooking for a later date — or an offer of a credit for a future holiday.
So, bearing in mind the extremity of the situation, I've changed the advice I give to those whose trips are cancelled and suggested that — if at all possible — they forbear from demanding a refund and accept an alternative offer. The more people who feel able to do this, the more travel companies will survive to arrange our holidays in future.