The Airline Customer Advocate (ACA) is an industry-based scheme set up to resolve complaints from customers about service provided by the five participating airlines: Jetstar, Qantas, Regional Express, Tiger Airways and Virgin Australia.
The face behind the ACA is the Customer Advocate herself, Julia Lines, a former manager of complaint assessments at the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission, where she helped to assess thousands of complaints every year about health service providers.
Lines, who will be based in Sydney, says she is prepared to name and shame carriers that fail to respond to consumer complaints.
Complaints might relate to flight delays and cancellations, missing baggage, surly stewards, hard-to-figure-out websites, dubious airline meals (or lack of meals), in-flight service (or lack of service), tricky frequent flyer point schemes and a host of other niggles and gripes.
The ACA defines its role as “to effectively represent the interests of airline customers and to play a leading role in customer advocacy within the Australian airline industry”.
The office pledges to forward consumer complaints to the right person at the relevant airline and ensure the aggrieved consumer receives a response within “a reasonable time”, which it defines as “usually within 20 working days”.
Does the ACA have any teeth? The ACA admits it doesn’t have independent power to make decisions that affect the participating airline’s response to any consumer complaint. It says, however, that airlines are bound by their commitment to respond within the required timeframe to all complaints referred to them by the ACA.
Minster for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, points out that flying is five times more affordable today than it was 20 years ago, thanks to greater competition, the rise of low-cost airlines and the availability of different types of fares, classes and service levels.
“But cheap fares shouldn’t mean cheap treatment,” Albanese says.
“Passengers are entitled to be treated fairly and decently by airlines. And this means having their complaints dealt with properly and in a timely manner.
“The establishment of the Airline Customer Advocate implements another key recommendation of the Government’s Aviation White Paper. An overwhelming majority of the White Paper recommendations have now been implemented or are ongoing initiatives.
“Airline customers already have a range of rights under Australian Consumer Law. The Airline Customer Advocate will complement existing laws and act as a link between passengers and airlines to get complaints resolved within 20 working days.
“The Airline Customer Advocate builds on the Government’s other initiatives to improve industry engagement with the community and consumers, including customer charters that set out minimum standards for handling complaints and outline clear commitments to offer full refunds to passengers in specified circumstances.”
The ACA’s new website lists each participating airline’s customer charter. The website is: www.airlinecustomeradvocate.com.au
The site states: “The ACA will also contribute to the raising of the participating airlines’ standards of customer service. We will do this by monitoring and reporting on complaints received and issues raised. We can also provide recommendations to the participating airlines for improving their customer service and relationships with consumers and identify systemic issues that may lead to industry wide recommendations for change.
“Our aim is to reduce complaints about airlines and reduce the number of complaints that are inadequately addressed.”
Written by Peter Needham