Qantas’ defence to selling tickets on ghost flight fails the pub test dismally

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Qantas’ defence to the competition regulator’s claims that it sold tickets on cancelled flights will infuriate customers and upend their understanding of what they are actually buying when they book an airline ticket.

According to Qantas, customers are not buying a particular flight to a particular destination at a particular time when they meticulously place all this information into the booking engine and press pay.

Qantas says it wasn’t selling a flight, it was selling a service.Credit: AFR

Instead, Qantas maintains the customer is buying a “service”, which it defines as a bundle of contractual rights that obliges the airline to do its best to get consumers where they want to be on time.

So what you are contracting to buy may result in a flight at a different time or on a different airline.

Customers understandably believe that when they book and pay – for example, for a Qantas ticket to Los Angeles on March 10 – the airline is legally obliged to take them to that destination on that day. Apparently not, according to Qantas.

Qantas did not deny accusations by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) that the airline sold tickets on 8000 cancelled flights, or that it failed to promptly inform customers their flights had been cancelled.

Rather, Qantas says it was acting within the law to sell seats on these flights.

By this definition, booking a ticket sounds more like a lucky dip, or maybe one of those mystery flights that airlines used to sell.

As defences go, it will be incendiary to customers whose holidays were ruined or whose business meetings were missed. How this defence plays out in the courts, or in settlement negotiations with the ACCC, remains to be seen.

But it fails the pub test dismally.

By this definition, booking a ticket sounds more like a lucky dip or maybe one of those mystery flights that airlines used to sell.

Qantas’ public relations experts fully understand the use of this legalistic interpretation won’t assuage anger towards the airline, so it issued a statement saying it denied breaking any laws and acknowledging that customers were let down.

And if you follow this legal defence to its head-scratching conclusion, Qantas has not – as the competition regulator has alleged – deceived or misled customers even if it booked customers on cancelled flights. Because Qantas says it wasn’t selling a flight, it was selling a service, and it provided a replacement service.

The airline isn’t denying that at times it failed to tell customers that flights had been cancelled.

Rather it contends that “Qantas made no representation, at any time, that any particular flight had NOT been cancelled”. Further, Qantas did not represent to consumers that the “manage booking” page would, at all times, necessarily reflect Qantas’ latest scheduling decisions.

So Qantas never said it would tell its passengers about cancellations? That really makes one’s head spin.

And here is another one.

“While Qantas will use reasonable endeavours to operate in accordance with its published flight schedules, and thereby to do its best to get consumers where they want to be on time, Qantas does not represent that it will use reasonable endeavours to operate any particular flight,” according to its statement of defence.

While all the above outlines the highly legalistic argument about whether Qantas was entitled to sell tickets on ghost flights, the next question is why it did so.

Enter the chaotic era and system limitations.

“We couldn’t remove these flights from sale automatically while also providing impacted customers with alternative flights,” Qantas said.

Qantas was essentially saying that it was trying to find solutions before the customers knew there was a problem and took it upon themselves to fix it.

As for booking customers on cancelled flights, Qantas said it “wanted to offer our customers alternatives rather than the uncertainty and frustration that would have existed if we had simply pushed through the cancellation in our system before we were able to offer alternative flights to get them to their destination”.

This explanation feels flimsy and Qantas does concede that longer delays informing customers that they had booked on cancelled flights were due to human failure and processing problems.

The ACCC contends that some flights were cancelled for commercial reasons or to protect landing slots, but Qantas disputes this.

The question now is whether this dispute will make its way to the Federal Court or get settled.

Airing this defence would be a public relations disaster that Qantas must want to avoid.

Let the negotiations begin!

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