MAC partners like to think about the deeper meaning of their real-life consumer experiences. The one I relate here was not so much “in my face” like Colin’s, as “on my screen”. And it gave me a wholly unexpected lesson in what “consumer champion” can really mean. If you thought “champion” meant someone who was on your side as the consumer, then read on…
In a nutshell, easyJet billed me for tickets they had refused to sell me online and my credit card provider MBNA Bank refused to do anything about the £600+ disputed charge. That’s when I found out what dealing with EJ’s “consumer champion” really meant. I naïvely thought he would be on my side and try to sort things out. How silly. No, what EJ’s consumer champion is there for is to do battle with pesky consumers like me and defend the company. He is their champion. An important distinction!
Picture the burnished orange breastplate and EJ logo pennant snapping in the breeze as the company’s paladin charges down on the hapless complainant. Having had a couple of fruitless email encounters with the “champion”, I was about to resort to one of m’ learned friends and think about the county court when I found a capable ally in the form of Lisa Bachelor, the Guardian’s indomitable consumer editor. She carried my complainant’s colours into battle with EJ and vanquished them. An apology – it was all a terrible misunderstanding you know – was forthcoming as well as my money.
Here’s how the story unfolded.
Just before Christmas last year, in the wake of the Eurostar service collapse due to snow problems in Northern France, our party of four decided to fly to Cologne rather than risk the train on which we had booked. We found four single fares on EasyJet.
With the other three intending travellers watching, I booked through the airline website, which was quoting one-way flights for 22 December (including all the extras) of £624.61 for four, which was reasonable at such short notice just before Christmas.
After inputting my credit card details and pressing “purchase”, I received an on-screen message saying the transaction had not been accepted and that if I wished to make a booking, I would have to start again. And by the way, the price of each fare had now risen to approximately £150 each, plus all the extras!
We were not prepared to pay this increased price and I exited the site, with the reasonable assumption that no purchase had been made. I found alternative flights with Air Berlin to Düsseldorf, a short train journey away from Cologne. Air Berlin is a very nice carrier by the way and we will definitely use them again.
Then the fun started. The following morning a booking “confirmation” email/e-ticket arrived from easyJet for the four flights its website had refused to sell me the night before.
After much difficulty and fruitless attempts to use their call centre (which was quoting 8 hour delays in responding), I managed to complain within the 24-hour criteria the company sets for cancellations and refunds. Despite this its position was that it was a “non-refundable airline” and therefore would do nothing. What I as the customer got was not help, but two fingers from the “consumer champion” at the airline.
The credit card issuer took an equally dismissive tone despite having Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act and the civil wrong of misrepresentation explained to them. It was none of their concern, they said, as they weren’t present when the website malfunctioned so there was no proof I as telling the truth. Our American travelling companions supplied a sworn affidavit shortly afterwards and that too went into the bundle for the Guardian.
When The Guardian contacted easyJet on my behalf, how their response changed! Now the company claimed I had never mentioned our booking with the other airline when I was finally able to contact them to complain about the website malfunction. Because there was no evidence of an alternative booking, it could not refund the money. A nice story if true, but it wasn’t. I had told them all about it and it was easily disproved by supplying a copy of the dated Air Berlin invoice.
The outcome was that despite the easyJet “consumer champion” parroting “non-refundable airline” in every response he made, the company did apologise after Lisa Bachelor’s intervention, saying there was “some kind of misunderstanding”, and refunded my £624.61. The credit card company refunded the interest they had charged on the disputed balance but made no apology.
What I learned from this experience was that there are real consumer champions like Lisa Bachelor and then there are the other kind that simply mascarade. Titles can be misleading, but when you have a problem you find out pretty quickly who is really on the complainant’s side.