Salvos Legal Humanitarian first came into contact with Malia in February 2018. Malia is illiterate, a survivor of family violence and formerly a refugee from South Sudan. She has ten children and grandchildren and struggles to meet her family’s living expenses.
This matter started with an email to our office from Malia’s support worker at a Salvation Army Social Housing Service. Malia’s support worker was confused and outraged at how her client’s current situation had evolved. Malia had been saving for several years to make a trip to visit family in her homeland. She made the trip at the end of 2017 and had done so at a total cost of $12,920.00 for only two travelers – The cost was so high, because her tickets had originally been booked not only to the wrong city, but also to the wrong country. Malia had gone to a travel agent rather than going online, because she did not want anything to go wrong. One of her daughters, fluent in English, went with her to help. With her daughter assisting, Malia organised air travel for herself and two of her children to Aweil in South Sudan, through the capital city of Juba. Malia’s daughter left the agency to withdraw funds to pay for the tickets – when she returned the contract had been printed and signed, and the tickets issued.
What neither knew, and what only became evident at the airport was that the tickets were booked to Port Sudan, the capital of Sudan a different city in a different country! The family presented at the airport six weeks later, bags packed ready for the trip only to be told when checking in their baggage, the destination listed on their tickets was not Juba in South Sudan but Port Sudan, in Sudan. To make matters worse, they were told they did not have the correct visas for travel to Sudan. If the agency had alerted them to the need for a visa, it would have brought the incorrect destination to everyone’s attention.
What followed was several stressful hours trying to work out if they could get to South Sudan. An approach to a branch of the travel agency at the airport was fruitless – the family had to go to the branch that made the booking.
Frustrated and upset, they did not fly out. The following day, Malia returned to the original branch. The travel agent who booked the flight seemed confused and promised to resolve the issue.
However, numerous visits and phone calls to the travel agent were made with no result. At one stage, the agent questioned Malia whether she meant she wanted to go to ‘Cuba’ not ‘Juba’ as the agent claimed never before to have booked tickets to South Sudan and never to have heard of a place called Juba. The travel agency’s solution was to issue new tickets this time to Juba in South Sudan – the destination Malia had always stated – but at Malia’s cost, an additional cost of $6,600.00. According to the travel agent, the ‘incorrect’ destination was specified in the original contract signed by Malia so the ticketing to the ‘incorrect’ destination was entirely her fault. Remember, Malia is illiterate, neither writes nor reads English and it was whilst Malia’s daughter went to withdraw funds from the Bank the travel agent printed the contract, had Malia sign it, and issued the tickets.
Malia could not afford the cost of new tickets for 3 people, and could only afford to re-book for herself and one child costing her $3,400.00.
By this point, Malia had spent close to $13,000, for two air tickets.
It was when she returned and spoke to her support worker that the email mentioned above initiated Salvos Legal Humanitarian’s involvement. We took instructions. Relying upon protections under the Australian Consumer Law we made detailed written submissions to the travel agency business, warning that an action in VCAT was available to Malia. The travel agency resisted and escalated our demand within their corporate hierarchy to their corporate counsel. After exchanges of correspondence and telephone discussions, a concession was finally made that Malia did have a legitimate claim under Australian Consumer Law and settlement negotiations followed. Finally, the organisation agreed on a settlement of $6,000.00. This figure essentially put Malia back in the position she would have been in had the initial booking not gone awry – in terms of pure economic loss anyway. Regrettably, the travel agency’s concession was not accompanied by an express acknowledgment of responsibility or apology for the stress and frustration caused.
If Salvos Legal Humanitarian had not provided Malia with assistance, it is likely she wouldn’t have received any compensation. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of our team, Malia can move on knowing there is some accountability for the conduct of the travel agency.