ATAS Code of Conduct improvements welcome but do not go far enough to protect consumers

23rd Aug 2022

Recommendations made following a review of the travel agents’ self-regulatory accreditation scheme are welcome but do not go far enough to sufficiently protect consumers, says the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

The Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA) recently undertook an independent review of its Travel Accreditation Scheme (ATAS) that is designed to set quality benchmarks for the industry and the report was recently released.

“We welcome the improvements recommended by the independent review that will help to protect consumers and provide more transparency in relation to fees, refunds and credits,” said Ms Victoria Roy, travel lawyer and spokesperson for the ALA. “However, many of the recommendations miss the opportunity to truly protect consumers and ensure they fully understand their rights.

“We welcome the improvement in the Code of Conduct requiring separate client accounts to be held, annual financial statements to be filed, and financial statements to be prepared by an accountant.  However, it is disappointing that the AFTA Board has not determined whether these rules will apply to sole traders who, without the accountability of colleagues, are arguably at greatest risk of mixing client and business money. 

“The measure also does not go far enough to protect consumers from misappropriation of client funds. Trust accounts requiring independent auditing and penalties for misappropriation would best protect consumers. Given ongoing media stories about misappropriation of consumer funds, it's disappointing the opportunity has not been taken to reintroduce them.”

Misunderstandings and limited awareness of the terms and conditions of travel bookings was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic when many consumers experienced considerable distress and frustration when cancelling travel bookings. 

“We welcome the recommendation which will see agent's terms and conditions provided to consumers upfront but the supplier’s terms and conditions, and the role of other parties in the transaction have a significant effect on a consumer's rights and this information should be provided to consumers in full,” said Ms Roy.

“A generic statement that supplier terms and conditions will apply without providing copies or access to them is insufficient. Most travel supplier terms and conditions are available online.  It is not onerous to provide a consumer with a link to the relevant terms and conditions prior to entering the contract. Whether the consumer has the time or inclination to read them is a decision for the consumer, not the travel agent.

“The information recommended in the International Code for the Protection of Tourists, recently released by the World Tourism Organisation, is the gold standard of information to be provided to consumers, and it is a missed opportunity that ATAS members are not required to provide this to consumers.”