Passengers who have been unable to fly to Bali due to the eruption of Mt Agung may be entitled to a full refund of their airfare under Australian consumer law, according to the Australian competition watchdog.
Airlines on Friday again mounted flights to retrieve stranded travellers but were not taking holidaymakers to the stricken island.
The rescue effort, which includes a Qantas Boeing 747, comes as a major escalation of the eruption is expected at any time.
Jetstar and Virgin Australia have been offering passengers the ability to cancel travel and receive credit vouchers, the ability to fly free to alternative destinations or the ability to rebook at a later date.
The offers have conditions attached and at this stage apply to people travelling until December 8, although this will be revised if the disruption continues.
But passengers who find none of the those alternatives acceptable may be able to get their money back.
A spokesman for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission told AirlineRatings that Australian consumer law provided consumers of goods and services, including airline passengers, with consumer guarantees.
For services, this includes guarantees that the service would be fit for purpose and provided within a reasonable time.
Airline terms and conditions, usually found in the fine print on an e-ticket or an airline website, generally include information about what remedies an airline will provide to a consumer in the event of flight delays or cancellations.
These tend to be more generous when the delay is due to something over which the airline has control, such as a technical problem, and can include accommodation and meals. But this is usually not the case when an event is beyond the carrier’s control, such as a volcanic eruption.
However, The ACCC spokesman said these terms and conditions could not exclude a consumer’s rights under Australian consumer law.
“Whether a consumer is entitled to a refund for a delayed or cancelled flight will largely depend on the terms and conditions of the airfare, along with the cause of the delay or cancellation, and the circumstances of the individual consumer.
“In cases such as the current Bali volcano incident, where flights have been delayed or cancelled, the ACCC expects that airlines will attempt to provide their passengers with reasonable alternative arrangements to get them to their destination and be flexible in their engagement with consumers.
“Where these alternative arrangements are not acceptable to a consumer, it is reasonable to expect that the airline will provide a refund.”
One caveat is that costs such as additional accommodation costs are unlikely to be included.
“While the consumer guarantees give consumers the ability to claim compensation for loss or damage suffered in certain circumstances, consumers should not expect that they will always be entitled to recover costs, for example for additional accommodation, from their airline where travel plans have been changed,’’ the ACCC spokesman said
“Consumers are encouraged to check the terms and conditions of their ticket, or contact the airline to find out what will happen if their flight is delayed or cancelled.”
One airline that is offering refunds is AirAsia, at this stage for travel from Novermber 25 until December 10.
Jetstar did not provide refunds when services to Bali were disrupted by volcanic activity in 2015, an event which cost the airline $23 million, and a spokesman said that was also the case with the current eruption.
Virgin said it was looking at refunds on a case-by-case basis but most of its customers were opting for the other options.
Subject to availability, Virgin is offering travellers the chanced of changing their booking to Fiji or Vanuatu with no fare difference change fees waived. Jetstar is offering similar deals to Vietnam, Fiji, Japan Thailand and Singapore, depending on the departure point.
There could also be bad news for some holidymakers travellers in terms of travel insurance, which may not be cover flight cancellations and accommodation costs due to the eruption.
Many travel insurers cut off coverage for Mt Agung when the likelihood of an eruption spiked in September and that exemption may still be in place.
Some re-instated coverage when Indonesian authorities downgraded their warnings but issued cut-off notices after the volcano began erupting late last month.
Travellers are advised to check their policy and talk to their insurer.