A businesswoman says she has been banned from using travel agent Flight Centre for 10 years after complaining to the company about a refund for a holiday cancelled due to Covid-19.
Elmas Saliba, who had been a customer of Flight Centre for over 15 years, says she received the “prohibition notice” last week informing her she was banned from attending and transacting with any Flight Centre stores or making contact with staff members.
The notice stated the “sanction is effectively immediately and is valid for 10 years from date of issue.”
Saliba, who runs a small business selling children’s furniture, said after receiving the note, “I sat there, and I cried for an hour and a half in shock.”
“They made me feel like I went and I threatened them and made a scene. To me that’s embarrassing. I’m far from someone like that.”
“They made me doubt myself is this me? I know it’s not me,” Saliba said.
In January 2020, after experiencing medical and family issues, Saliba decided she needed a holiday and sought expert advice from Flight Centre. She booked a trip to the Cook Islands, putting down a deposit of $6,150.
She later had to change the dates of the trip and then saw the holiday cancelled due to Covid-19.
After initially inquiring about a refund at the time of the cancellation in March 2020, she “let it go” before trying again at the beginning of this year.
Saliba said her contact with Flight Centre was more extensive, with calls a few times a week over the period in which she was attempting to change the dates of her trip. Saliba said “I haven’t been nagging” Flight Centre but that, if anything, the communication had been drawn out due to her being “transferred to so many different people.”
“All I needed was someone to outline ‘this is what you’ve given, this is what you’re owed’,” but instead Saliba described her frustration at Flight Centre’s confusing policies and what she felt was an unwillingness on the company’s part to communicate with her. She said she was eventually able to secure a partial refund of her holiday.
Erin Turner, the director of campaigns at Australian not-for-profit consumer advocacy organisation Choice, said, “in over 10 years working in consumer advocacy I haven’t seen this [kind of prohibition notice] before.”
“Companies need to protect individual staff members, but they can’t use those protections to intimidate customers.”
Turner said “they’d have to have fairly sustained evidence of aggressive behaviour from a customer to make a prohibition notice like this legitimate. Given that Flight Centre is struggling to keep records of what they owe customers, I question whether the evidence is there. Flight Centre should be transparent about what is a very extreme action.”
Flight Centre told Guardian Australia, “this was not a decision that was taken lightly and it was initiated solely in response to an unacceptable pattern of behaviour that was directed at our people over a period of more than 12 months”.
Flight Centre said that complaints about the customer’s behaviour were raised directly with her at various times.
“On 24 April last year, one of our people wrote to the customer [via email] to request that she ‘display courtesy with myself and other staff and deal with us in a respectful manner’.
“The customer was also asked in another email to refrain from ‘swearing and raising her voice’.”
Flight Centre was able to provide a screenshot of the email from 24 April but not for the second, nor any evidence of Saliba’s alleged behaviour. Saliba was also unable to find the email related to the second quote.
Saliba said she knows she would never have sworn at any member of staff at Flight Centre. “I run a small business selling kids furniture. I know how it feels to be treated unfairly [as a business], especially if it’s out of your control.”
Her own business experienced delays in getting stock from out of the country, but she said, “we’ve always followed up on it” and given customers the option for a refund. However, she found “most of our customers are happy to wait because we’ve communicated with them.”
Flight Centre also said, “unfortunately, in this instance, our people were not able to secure a full refund on the flight component of the customer’s booking because the airline’s terms and conditions only allowed for a credit to be provided.”
Erin Turner said the “travel sector needs an independent ombudsman to deal with tricky complaints like this. It shouldn’t end up at this point.”
“Consumers get frustrated when there’s no escalation option, and significant delays. We’ve seen a lot of cases at Choice from Flight Centre where the quality of customer service and internal systems wasn’t good enough.”
In a report soon to be released from Choice, Turner said “Flight Centre stand out as a particularly poor player when it comes to customer service and actioning refunds”.
The consumer advocate Adam Glezer runs several Facebook groups, including Travel Industry Issues: The Need for Change for Australians, with more than 17,000 members in total, that act as forums for people to share their difficulties with the travel industry.
Glezer said, “I deal with situations regularly where customers have not been kept in the loop as to where their refund is sitting, or their rights to a refund.”
In Saliba’s case, Glezer said “from what I understand of the situation it is a very extreme and unnecessary move. Elle booked through Flight Centre and was just looking for support.”