Family’s travel plans ruined over wheelchair debacle


A Brisbane woman battling muscular dystrophy has been barred from flying on a Virgin plane because her wheelchair is 1cm above the airline’s accepted height dimensions.

Emma Weatherley tried to book a trip from Brisbane to Cairns for next month on April 6 with Flight Centre, but was told the airline would not accept her motorised wheelchair height of 85cm aboard.

“I went to America in 2017 with Virgin – booked through Flight Centre – and took this exact wheelchair without any problems,” she told NCA NewsWire.

“This chair fits in the boot of my Corolla and apparently there’s not enough room on a Boeing 737. It defies logic for me.”

It comes after Virgin cancelled her trip to the United States late last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mother-of-two then got the money refunded in the way of a future travel credit and tried to book a domestic trip with her family instead, but the 40-year-old hit a curveball.

According to correspondence seen by NCA NewsWire, Flight Centre said Virgin was “unwilling to budge” on the height limit and “not willing to offer refunds on the credits”.

“The best option is to possibly go to the airport with your chair to check in, hopefully they accept it at the 85cm, but if they do not, then you would need to remove the wheels so it fits the accepted dimensions,” Ms Weatherley’s Flight Centre travel agent said in an email.

More correspondence from Virgin sent to Ms Weatherley suggested her chair “be dismantled or lowered below 84cm”.

But Ms Weatherley said her wheelchair “was not designed to be dismantled”.

“The wheels alone cost $10,000 and you would need to disassemble the motor inside them – it’s not designed for this, it will weaken the motors when they’re put back together.”

She also said hiring a manual wheelchair “was not an option”.

“I have muscular dystrophy – I don’t have the power in my arms to propel the wheels forward,” she said.

“I would literally need to get modifications done to my wheelchair to make it fit, which is ridiculous and would cost more money.”

Ms Weatherly wants a full refund of the $8500 she paid for her cancelled USA trip, rather than the travel credit she received.

“Travelling with a disability should not be made this difficult – it’s exhausting. If I can’t travel anywhere because of my wheelchairthen at least offer me a full refund.”

She said she did have travel insurance with “cancel for any reason cover”, but canned it once she accepted the flight credits.

Virgin said it did not accept electronic wheelchairs over the maximum height of 84cm for safety reasons.

If a customer’s wheelchair did not fit within the dimensions after being adjusted or disassembled they would need to travel with an alternative mobility aid – such as a manual wheelchair – which did fit within the allowable dimensions.

It’s understood Virgin provided Flight Centre with authority to provide a travel credit for the value of Ms Weatherley’s booking from Brisbane to Cairns.

Virgin Australia Group spokesman Kris Taute said: “We are working closely with the customers travel agent to resolve this case.”

Ms Weatherley’s travel agency Flight Centre confirmed it was working with Virgin on a solution.

“We have reached out to our contacts at Virgin to try and find the best possible solution however at this time, we do not have a clear response,” spokeswoman Anna Burgdorf said.

“We will continue to work with Mrs Weatherley to find the best solution for her circumstances.

“Flight Centre’s customers are incredibly to important to our business and we continue to advocate to find the best solution to any issues or concerns as they arise.”

Ms Weatherley has sought help from consumer advocate Adam Glezer’s group Travel Industry Issues.

The country’s travel industry has borne a brutal brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic after the federal government slammed international borders shut in March last year in a bid to stop the virus spreading to Australia.

Virgin collapsed into administration in April after it was no longer able to service its debts, while the pandemic forced the grounding of most of its fleet and starved the country’s second biggest airline of cash.

Deloitte stepped in to restructure Virgin, before selling it to American private investment firm Bain Capital.

Flight Centre posted a $662 million statutory loss after tax last year as a result of the pandemic, forcing the ASX-listed travel agent to close about 400 of the 740 stores it operated pre-COVID.

anthony.piovesan@news.com.au



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Arthur Zacharias: Ponzi scheme fraudster jailed


A fraudster travel agent who left clients stranded overseas has been jailed for more than three years.

Arthur Zacharias, 49, operated a Ponzi scheme and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars by defrauding the business he worked for, his clients and a former Hells Angels bike boss.

The court was told the fraudster also tried to purchase the Axis Travel agency in December 2015 with a false bank deposit receipt of $50,000.

District Court Judge Simon Stretton said Zacharias’s “serious and protracting” offending caused his victims to feel “hopelessness”, “misery”, “anger” and “frustration”.

He said Zacharias also made no attempt to pay back any money.

“Your behaviour resulted in significant trauma for a number of your victims as they realised the travel arrangements they thought had been made on their behalf had not been made,” Judge Stretton told the court on Thursday.

“Indeed, more than one was stranded in a foreign country, with you only purchasing a one-way ticket when they thought a return ticket had been purchased.

“It is clear from the facts that the significant amount of funds taken were just used by you for your own personal purposes.

“The case against you is overwhelming. Not have you nor do you intend to make any form of reparation.”

The former travel agent pleaded guilty to 19 counts of theft, two counts of deception, one count of dishonest dealing with documents, two counts of misuse of personal identification or information, and two counts of dishonest manipulation of a machine.

Zacharias’s offending occurred between July 2014 and June 2016 while he worked as a subcontractor for Axis Travel.

During that period, he was also sentenced for three counts of obtaining a financial advantage.

For his current offending, Zacharias was sentenced to five-and-a-half years imprisonment with a non-parole period of three years and two months.

Following that jail time, the fraudster will then spend a further nine months behind bars to complete the previous sentence for three counts of obtaining a financial advantage.

Under those charges, he wrongly claimed $35,211.55 through the Newstart allowance that he was not entitled to.

Outside of court, Axis Travel director Max Najar said he and the business shouldered about 55 per cent of the costs incurred by Zacharias’s offending, while 45 per cent was covered through insurance.

In a previous hearing, he said Zacharias’ crimes amounted to more than $596,894 as well as lost time and health issues.

“It would have been nice if it was a longer sentence,” he told reporters on Thursday.

“It has impacted us on our health, our clients’ health and the financial health of the business.”

Mr Najar explained his former employee’s dealings were “easily” undetected because he used false credits cards, separate phone numbers and told clients not to contact the business and deal with him directly.

“As soon as we discovered it, we dismissed him immediately … had he (not be arrested and charged) he would still be on the streets causing all the havoc in the travel industry.”



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Emirates suspends flights to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane amid caps


Emirates has suspended all flights to and from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane until further notice, leaving the travel plans of thousands of Australians stranded overseas up in the air.

The major airline announced the suspension on Friday night was “due to operational reasons”.

An estimated 37,000 Australians are still overseas and seeking assistance to get back into the country.

It’s understood the airline will continue operating twice weekly flights to and from Perth.

The Australian High Commission in the United Kingdom, where Emirates flights to Australia depart with stopovers in Dubai, said on Twitter: “We appreciate the disruption this will cause.”

RELATED: Labor says Government should have acted sooner

Emirates was one of the last international airlines flying Down Under after Qantas last year cancelled all international flights until March 2021.

On January 8, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced national cabinet had agreed to slash the number of international arrivals into New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia by half, starting “no later” than Friday, January 15 and lasting until February 15.

He said this was “to manage the flow of returning Australians and other travellers who have been potentially exposed to the new variants” of COVID-19, including the highly contagious strain behind Brisbane’s Hotel Grand Chancellor cluster.

“Current international passenger caps in Victoria and South Australia and arrangements in the Northern Territory are considered manageable and will remain in place,” Mr Morrison said.

The new caps will be around 1500 weekly for NSW, and 500 for Queensland and WA.

Chartered flights for vulnerable Australians will continue.

From January 22, the Government will require travellers to Australia to return a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to departure.

EMIRATES’ LAST FLIGHTS TO THREE AUSSIE CITIES

* Dubai to Brisbane EK430 on January 16

* Brisbane to Dubai EK431 on January 17

* Dubai to Sydney EK414 on January 18

* Sydney to Dubai EK415 on January 19

* Dubai to Melbourne EK408 on January 19

* Melbourne to Dubai EK409 on January 20

“Customers holding tickets with final destinations Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane will not be accepted for travel at their point of origin after the completion of the above flights,” Emirates said in a statement.

“Emirates regrets any inconvenience caused. Affected customers should contact their travel agent or Emirates contact centre for rebooking options.”



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Excessive cancellation fees ‘a burning issue’


The boss of travel company Helloworld says excessive travel cancellation fees is “a burning issue” but denies his company is to blame, pointing the finger at suppliers.

Helloworld Travel tore through its annual general meeting on Friday in a blistering 30 minutes and escaped all questioning until the last moment when the thorny cancellations issue was raised.

Chairman Garry Hounsell left it to chief executive Andrew Burnes, ex-treasurer of the Liberal Party, to respond.

Mr Burnes acknowledged the big fees would-be travellers are being slugged – reportedly thousands of dollars – after being forced by the pandemic to call off their plans.

“Those cancellation fees have not been cancellation fees of Helloworld. They have been cancellation fees of various suppliers and it is a burning issue,” he told investors.

“We’ve had regular engagement with the ACCC about this, and we’ve been very firm in keeping any cancellation fees, if any that we have, to a minimum with our customers.

“But different airlines have imposed different policies … different land operators as well and different cruise operators, so there’s been a lack of consistency … about the fees and also conditions.”

He said there were “challenges” around whether suppliers offered credits only or refunds.

“Many of those issues have now been resolved but it certainly has caused some concern out there,” Mr Burnes said.

“The other matter that has also caused concern has been the length of time it has been taking to get monies back from suppliers to refund them back to customers. That’s still an ongoing issue.

“The actual fee side of it, it’s not been helpful but certainly Helloworld I think has conducted itself very well in that regard and has not been subject to any criticism or any sanction from any of the regulatory authorities at a state or federal level.”

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission data shows the pandemic’s impact on travel accounted for 24,210 out of the 109,446 complaints received by the watchdog in the first 10 months of this year, up 497 per cent compared with the same period last year.

“Common misconduct we’ve received complaints about during the pandemic includes businesses misleading consumers about their right to a refund or deducting cancellation fees from refunds when there is no contractual basis to do so,” ACCC commissioner Sarah Court said on Wednesday.

“We announced some cases such as Flight Centre, Qantas and Etihad, where we worked with those businesses to improve their treatment of customers, but we’ve been doing a lot of other work behind the scenes with dozens of travel businesses to get refunds and other remedies for customers who had their holiday plans dashed.

“The ACCC is very conscious of the fact that many businesses have struggled to process cancellations and respond to consumer queries as they have reduced staff capacity and are struggling to stay afloat.

“We have taken these issues into account in our engagement.”

Helloworld is burning through cash but says it has enough money and liquidity to maintain operations “well into 2022 or longer”.

The travel agent chain has obviously not given up on the beleaguered cruise sector despite it being at the centre of many outbreaks, announcing on Monday it had agreed to add cruise wholesaling specialist CruiseCo to its cruising business.

Mr Burnes told the meeting the company was confident it would be able to market and sell global cruises for departure later next year.

“We’re also confident that all state borders, with the possible exception of Western Australia, will be open by the end of this year, and hopefully WA will follow suit early in 2021,” he said.

“Once that happens there will be a significant uplift in travel.

“In the new year we would anticipate Pacific bilateral bubbles to open up in countries throughout Asia, although we do not expect travel to Europe, the UK or the USA to open up in any meaningful way until the last quarter of 2021.”

Helloworld hit headlines last year after Labor claimed Mr Cormann, who resigned as Australia’s longest-serving finance minister last month, had family holiday flights paid for by Helloworld, which he denies, claiming there was an administrative error with his credit card.

Mr Cormann conceded he had called Mr Burnes personally several times to arrange his family holidays.



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