Customers are calling on Air NZ to offer credits or waive change fees for people booked to fly to summer events that have been cancelled because of the new Covid red light restrictions

All over the country, hundreds of thousands of people are gutted the events they have been looking forward to all summer have been cancelled. Everything from music and food festivals to arts and fashion weeks, from weddings and birthday bashes to major sporting events were canned or postponed in the 24 hours following Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s snap announcement on Sunday that New Zealand was going into the red traffic light setting.

Under red, you can have no more than 100 people at indoor or outdoor events.

Now many of those disappointed attendees are waking up to the fact they will also lose the Air New Zealand flight they booked to take them to the party. 

People who chose one of the carrier’s cheaper and less flexible tickets (seat only, or seat plus bag) are being told there is no option available to take a credit and fly later – just an option to pay $50 to change a return flight to a different date or destination.

Air New Zealand’s argument is that its flights are still operating. There are no Covid-related travel restrictions under red, so they are not obliged to offer credit or change fee waivers. 

It offered credits last year when Auckland went into red because border restrictions meant Aucklanders weren’t allowed to leave the city. This time, people can still fly.

You can see what Air NZ is saying. Hey guys, you bought an inflexible ticket in uncertain times, and then when the event you were going to got cancelled and you decided you didn’t want to fly, you get pissed at us. What did you expect?

“A tacit understanding”

But it still feels harsh.

James* booked flights from Wellington to the South Island over Waitangi weekend in early February for an event that’s now been cancelled.

He bought a ‘seat only’ ticket but believed if Covid disrupted his travel plans Air NZ would be flexible.

“After the bad publicity in 2020 Air NZ have been really good about giving flight credits even on fares that were cheap (therefore not available for credit under usual conditions), when government announcements about alert levels/traffic lights cause changes to plans. 

“I thought there was a tacit understanding between Air NZ and the public that changes such as those announced on Sunday meant all flights of any ‘conditions’ would be eligible for credit.”

Unlike the days of the lockdowns, New Zealanders are allowed to fly under the red traffic light level. Photo: Matthew Scott

Not so, says an Air NZ spokesperson. The company did have something it called ‘voluntary opt-in for credit’, but that finished on October 31 last year.

“Our normal fare rules for domestic travel resumed on 1 November after we introduced our new domestic fare structure that provides customers with a full range of options when it comes to travel flexibility. 

“Customers told us they wanted to know, up-front and when booking, that they have flexibility to make changes. The new fare structure reflects that preference and aims to give customers more confidence when booking.”

‘People are angry, some are crying’

James isn’t the only one in this situation. Another customer Newsroom spoke to said they had called the airline’s helpline for advice and was told the desk was receiving dozens of calls. 

“They told me some people are angry [when they call], some people are crying, but they can’t do anything. But other people had bought a flexi-refundable ticket, and that’s a wise decision.” 

James says he understands the carrier’s reluctance to hand out refunds, but is frustrated at a refusal to give credit or waive change fees.

“The events I wanted to go to are not yet rescheduled and probably won’t be before I am due to fly out at Waitangi weekend. So if I did change dates, it would be a guess and I’d likely need to change at least twice – and for each change there is a fee. That has not been waived by the ‘red’ announcement either.”

Air NZ charges $25 per person per flight to change a date or destination. So two people on return flights would pay $100 for each change.

“It is especially discriminatory to focus that bar on people with cheaper tickets who tend to have greater need for money than people who chose more expensive tickets,” James says.

Jetstar flexible on fees

Air NZ’s domestic competitor Jetstar introduced a Covid-related “fly flexible” campaign last year.

“Planning a trip at the moment can be tricky. A border that’s open one week can be closed the next – then back open again,” the company says on its website. 

“If you booked domestic or international flight/s through between 17 September 2021 and 28 February 2022 and you decide to change the date of your travel, we’ll waive the change fee as part of our Fly Flexible campaign. 

“When you’re ready to rebook, you’ll need to cover any fare difference in your new booking, and you will need to make the change before your flight opens for check-in at the airport.”

Jetstar also has a ‘FairCredit’ add-on, which allows customers to cancel their trip and get a voucher. The price varies based on the fare purchased.

Times have changed

Not-for-profit advocate Consumer NZ campaigned hard (and successfully) when the pandemic started in 2020 to get a recalcitrant Air NZ to refund passengers who often had very expensive international flights booked and had never dreamed the world could suddenly shut down.

But times have changed, says Gemma Rasmussen, head of communications and campaigns.

“Now people have an understanding of changing alert levels, and if you are going to buy a cheaper seat and decide not to get insurance there’s a definite possibility your plans could be disrupted. 

“It’s not the airline’s responsibility if your event does not take place.”

Gemma Rasmussen says the present uncertainty means customers might have to change flights three or four times – and that’s expensive. Photo: Supplied

Instead, Consumer is advising people to read the terms and conditions before they pay for a flight and get an understanding of what the credit policy is – “and maybe pay a little bit more to get more flexibility”, Rasmussen says. 

On the other hand, she would like to see more flexibility from Air NZ when it comes to fees, which she sees as an expensive and potentially unfair administrative cost. 

“I would hope the airline would show a level of understanding and waive change fees because this situation can be really hard for people. It’s quite possible in these uncertain times you could have to change a flight three or four times and that can be a lot of money.”

* Did not want his real name used

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

Leave a comment