Flight Centre – a case for a Travel Industry Ombudsman

May 11

A critical review of Flight Centre

This post has been brewing since 2010. That’s when my wife was offered a visiting fellowship to St Andrews University, and we made the mistake of booking our travel to Scotland through Flight Centre.

We were there for a bit over three months, and the involvement of Flight Centre very much marred the experience. My wife was in tears on occasions – as a result of the stress of trying to sort out the mistakes – and I lost sleep, which is quite unusual for me. Indeed, it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve felt I had the emotional space to revisit the mess.

I hope that by posting this negative ‘review’, someone else may be saved similar stress. I also think scenarios like ours make a very good case for the creation of a Travel Industry Ombudsman. If we need one for Telecommunications (and we clearly do) we certainly need one for this industry. Travel agents seem to get off scot-free, and because a big travel holiday tends to be a relatively rare occurrence, I suspect most people tend to just live with what they’re dealt (unlike if they’re trying to run a business and their phones don’t work).

Taken in perspective, and compared to some of the horror stories I’ve read about muddled travel arrangements, our experience was hardly an ordeal, but it was still very stressful for us, and did demonstrate some systemic issues.

So, to the story…

Firstly, some clarification of terms.  A Flight Centre “consultant” is your travel agent. A Flight Centre “customer relations officer” is the title for the position handling first level complaints.

The ‘executive summary’ of our dramas is as follows. In hindsight, just the first few points should have been enough to prompt us to take our business elsewhere.

The Flight Centre website “about us” page states that “our consultants are experienced, highly trained experts”. In contrast to this claim, our experience was as follows:

  • Our consultant’s administrative skills seemed to border on raw incompetence. There were multiple spelling mistakes on our ticket (including names and addresses – not insignificant given that the four of us were travelling on passports/visa), incorrect dates of travel, and we were erroneously sent travel details pertaining to another customer we’d never heard of.
  • In not heeding my wife’s request to not deal with that particular consultant any longer, Flight Centre acted in a way which their Customer Relations department has since acknowledged was improper.
  • Our consultant’s knowledge of travel was, in my opinion, sorely lacking. She was unable to advise on basic information such as at which airport we would need to collect our bags.
  • Our consultant provided incorrect/incomplete information about baggage limits.
  • Our consultant failed to make us aware of the opportunity of requesting kids’ meals for our children – which had to be booked in advance – on the long haul flight.
  • On receiving a brochure for travel insurance from our consultant, I requested a Product Disclosure Statement (which is what the brochure said to do if we wanted more info), and in response she sent the brochure again. I had to explain that the brochure is not the PDS, for the travel insurance she was trying to sell me.
  • By phoning the airline we received vital information that was clearly not known to Flight Centre, which could have resulted in our leaving our baggage behind, or incurring another check-in time which would have resulted in our missing our flights.
  • The consultant thanked me for passing this information back to her, and the customer relations department stated that it was only through such on the job training that their consultants can develop. My objection is that I used them because they’re supposedly experts – I didn’t expect that I would be training Flight Centre employees while paying Flight Centre thousands of dollars.
  • The customer relations officer seemed to suggest that the consultant’s job was to book flights, and it was our job to sort out how best to handle our luggage; “Ultimately your agent has booked your flights correctly and it is a decision for you as to how you might best manage your luggage for the journey.”
  • The customer relations officer gave the opinion that not many Flight Centre consultants would be aware of the dates of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (which was part of the month-long Edinburgh Festival, and billed as the world’s largest Arts event – surely something a travel agent worth their salt should be aware of when booking flights to Edinburgh).
  • I raised a query about the connection time that had been allowed for at Heathrow. Not being a seasoned traveller, I didn’t know if I was worrying about nothing or not. I was assured by Flight Centre that everything would be fine. Having looked into it myself on the Heathrow website, I did the sums and decided they were cutting things very fine. I pointed this out (noting that we would be arriving on the first day of the Edinburgh Festival), and asked for them to change the bookings at no cost to us. They refused – we’d have to pay. A few days before we left, I tore a calf muscle, which actually worked to our advantage in that I was given priority treatment, jumped queues, and was wheeled across Heathrow by an employee who knew exactly where he was going. Even so, we still missed that connecting flight. There were only four standby seats left on the next flight, scattered across the plane, and we  had to negotiate with other travellers just to be able to sit next to our seven year old children, who were freaking out about having to sit amongst strangers.
  • While we were in Scotland, my wife received, out of the blue, an email from our expert travel consultant, which was actually a quote for yet another different customer’s travel arrangements.
  • I contacted Consumer Affairs about our experience, and despite sympathising with my frustration, their official position was that this would be a civil mater that would require independent legal advice to take further. They would need more evidence that this was not an isolated incident, before they could pursue the claim of “highly trained experts” being a misrepresentation.
  • Despite subsequently dealing with a senior Flight Centre customer relations officer, when the chips were down, all this did is get another person involved; at the end of the day, any booking changes have to be handled by the branch who made them in the first place. The senior customer relations officer simply mediates between you and your highly trained travel consultants; so you effectively have no real recourse, to anyone.
  • When it came time to confirm all the travel arrangements for our return from Scotland, my wife was informed by the airline which we were flying with for the long haul, that our travel agent had only reserved two seats. For a family of four.
  • With only 5 days before we were due to fly out, I immediately escalated this to the senior customer support officer for resolution. After ‘investigation’, she responded stating that the booking was fine and that she was sorry that I wasn’t happy with the seating arrangements – seemingly implying that I’m just difficult to please. It was evident that all she’d done is spoken to the branch team leader who had confirmed that our booking was correct according to Flight Centre’s system.
  • I had to send them a picture of the Virgin Atlantic online seat allocation (something they should surely have checked themselves) before she acknowledged there was a problem. Amongst other things, this demonstrated to me that a Flight Centre “confirmed” seat reservation, as displayed on their system, potentially has no correlation to the airlines’ reservations.
  • A time change occurred in one of the airlines’ schedules, regarding which Flight Centre advised me I would need to contact the airline to finalise the arrangements. When I did, the airline looked up my booking and advised that, since Flight Centre had booked the flight, only Flight Centre had the authority to do what Flight Centre had instructed me to do.
  • Given our experience on arrival, I was keen to book a later connection to give us more time. Flight Centre advised that this was possible but the airline would charge an amendment fee. Flight Centre could not tell me how much the fee would be, nor even give a ballpark estimate, until they’d made the amendment (that is, I was being asked to agree to paying an as yet undisclosed fee). When I spoke to the airline in question, they told me, on the spot with no hesitation, that should I decide to make the change, it would incur a fee of 50 pounds per person.

I have to concur with a concluding line from a post in this forum, which says:

I wouldn’t book my worst enemy’s trip to hell through Flightcentre.


One comment

  1. Tanya /

    “Think Globally, Act locally”
    If you want to travel to the other side of the world then book it through someone local, not a faceless call centre. At least, that way, they know that if they mess it up then they still have to look you in the eye every time they bump into you in the local supermarket/servo/Banjos. What better way of ensuring that they do their job properly without the anonimity of the call centre to protect them? It’s got to be one of the up-sides to living in a small community.