An elderly couple who bought budget flights online for £143 each were charged an extra £2,000 – seven times the original fares – after having to twice change their flight dates.
Audrey Kay, 80, and her husband Brian, 84, are currently on a trip to Australasia to celebrate their diamond anniversary. The couple, from Mawdesley in Lancashire, made all their own travel arrangements. The bookings went without a hitch until they came to buy return flights for the short hop from Sydney to Auckland.
Online, they found an agent called CheapOair.co.uk, with the slogan, “Travel the world for less.” The return flights, operated by Air New Zealand, cost £143 each, totalling £286.
A day later, Mr Kay realised he needed to adjust the date of the inbound flight from Auckland to Sydney. He asked CheapOair to amend the flight – and was charged £1,049.
Being unfamiliar with the typical level of fees in the aviation industry, Mr Kay paid the charge. His son, Richard Kay, said: “We were unaware at the time that my father had paid this. Quite extraordinary, but he is 84 and simply must have thought this how it is when re-booking flights.”
Air New Zealand later told The Independent its usual “change fee” on the route is around £80 per person.
Worse was to come when the couple touched down in Sydney after a flight from Hong Kong. On their way in from the airport to the city, their passports were stolen.
The British Consulate in Sydney issued temporary documents to enable Mr and Mrs Kay to continue on to New Zealand. But they were told they would need to obtain new passports in Auckland for their homeward trip. This required them to change the date for their inbound flight once more.
With the couple in some distress after the theft, their daughter-in-law, Lesley Kay, made the change for them. CheapOair charged her a further £950.40. She paid up, assuming that the travel company was merely passing on the airline’s fees.
By then, CheapOair had levied “Post Booking Charges” totalling £1,999.40 – meaning the family had paid, including the £286 for two tickets in the first place, eight times more than the flights originally cost.
The couple’s son, Richard Kay, contacted CheapOair to query the astronomical fees. “I was told the matter would go to the billings department for ‘clarity’,” he said.
“I called several times. I also sent emails to their customer feedback, but got no replies.”
Richard Kay then alerted The Independent, saying: “I feel CheapOair are taking advantage of two old people and their ignorance in travel matters.”
When The Independent asked CheapOair to justify the £2,000 charges, the agency said it was a mistake.
The firm reimbursed Mr and Mrs Kay with £1,390, and later increased the refund to £1,608 – meaning the couple had paid £790 for their flights.
The Independent then asked CheapOair to explain how staff had made not one but two “mistakes” in levying astronomical fees; and why Richard Kay’s repeated challenges of the scale of the charges were ignored.
The company refused to answer these questions. Instead it issued a statement to The Independent: “The delay in resolving this error does not reflect the high standards of service that CheapOair strives to achieve. CheapOair is reviewing its checks and measures to reduce the likelihood of human error during a booking amendment.”
CheapOair is an offshoot of a US-based online travel agent. Its British base is an agency in Chiswick, west London, known as Dukes Court Travel.
The local MP, Ruth Cadbury, said: “Sadly there are too many so-called businesses who don’t put their customers first. I have alerted Hounslow’s trading standards team to investigate the travel agents concerned. At least in the travel trade there are industry standards and you can look out for their logo.”
Neither CheapOair nor Dukes Court Travel is a member of the travel association, Abta. A spokesman for Abta said: “The amounts charged to Mr and Mrs Kay to change their tickets were utterly unacceptable. The only amounts that should have been charged were the airline’s fee, plus possibly a reasonable admin charge.”
Richard Kay, who described the episode as “disgraceful”, is now planning to write to the airlines to report the behaviour of CheapOair: “I feel airlines should be more selective in choosing companies that can sell their seats online. This is exploitation of the worst kind.”
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