Dave and his wife Natalie were originally from South Africa but spent 11 years living in Cambodia.
During that time, they often chose AirAsia for travel due to its more affordable prices.
In 2019, they booked a flight from Phnom Penh to Sri Lanka. However, when Covid-19 struck in December of that year, the flight was cancelled.
With no refund available, Dave and Natalie were left with just one option: ticket credit to be used on their next flight. The problem with that was that they were preparing to move back to South Africa for good – and AirAsia does not operate in South Africa.
They made many attempts to contact AirAsia but none succeeded. They only received automated replies from the company’s virtual chatbox system, AirAsia Virtual Allstar or Ava.
“We tried using Ava to ask about a refund, but it’s just a bot that gives automated responses and it doesn’t help at all,” Dave said.
Last week, Natalie tried a different approach: using the AirAsia Super App on Messenger. She eventually managed to talk to someone online, and the person in charge assured her of a response within three days.
“After two hours, we received an automated response,” Dave said. “It said our request was declined without giving any further reason.”
This means that despite their best efforts, Dave and Natalie will lose US$800 (about RM3,348).
AirAsia was one of thousands of airlines around the world hit by cancellations during the Covid-19 crisis. But while many of these airlines have offered their customers refunds for their tickets, would-be passengers like Dave and Natalie who were grounded due to Covid-19 are unhappy with AirAsia’s credit policy.
AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes had assured in April that some 450,000 customers waiting for refunds would be repaid despite the airline’s cash problems due to Covid-19.
It said since January last year, some 1.5 million people had received refunds while 2.9 million accepted credit accounts in exchange for money.
The company recently announced RM887 million in net loss for its third quarter ended Sept 30, up from RM851.8 million in the same quarter last year, pushing the total net loss for the first nine months of this year to RM2.23 billion.
In a bourse filing, it said the losses were due to investments in technology including its efforts to boost its super app and Teleport, its cargo division.
AirAsia spokesman Nik Adina Taty said the airline’s refund policies are in line with those of many operators in the global travel industry.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, she said the company is also fully compliant with all regulatory requirements in each of the regions where it operates.
She also said that many other low-cost airlines are in the same situation, with refunds on the slow side due to the prolonged effect of the Covid-19 crisis.
“We keep guests updated frequently with emails regarding their refund status, and guests are also able to check the status of their refund via Ava.
“They also can view the status of their request in My Cases, accessible through the BIG Member Account either on the website or the AirAsia Super App,” she said, adding that ticket credit for future travel is valid for up to three years.
But for Abhilash, an Indian national studying at Davao Medical School Foundation Inc in the Philippines, ticket credit is useless as his options for travel are limited due to his studyload.
He was one of a number of medical students who had excitedly booked a flight home for their Christmas vacation. However, their hopes were crushed when, two days later, their flight was cancelled for operational reasons.
Abhilash had paid about 53,000 PHP (RM4,377) for his ticket. He contacted AirAsia to ask for a refund but received no response.
“After several emails and customer service chats, they said that they can’t refund the money and forced me to get the credit account to book other flights in the future, which will be of no use for me as I won’t be travelling after December 2021 due to my studies,” he said.
He and his fellow students tried asking to speak with a member of the AirAsia staff instead of a bot, but their efforts ended in failure.
Adina defended the Ava bot, saying it is available through multiple AirAsia contact channels and in 15 different languages, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Currently more than 90% of enquiries and requests can be successfully resolved by Ava, and should a customer need further assistance, they are transferred to a live agent during our operating hours of 6am until 11pm daily,” she said.
But as advanced as Ava is, customers often prefer to speak to a real person when dealing with questions and detailed explanations.
Earlier this year, the Malaysian Aviation Commission (Mavcom) revealed that AirAsia had received the lion’s share of complaints in the second half of 2020 with 75.8% lodged compared with other airlines.
Perlita and her family were supposed to fly back from Australia to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah to attend a cousin’s wedding. However, their flight was cancelled due to Covid-19.
While the rest of her family received a refund for their tickets, Perlita was only offered a list of options including the credit account for which she eventually settled.
Her sister received her refund the day after she requested it, but her brother is still waiting for his although his request was accepted.
Perlita meanwhile was left thoroughly confused as to why only her request was rejected.
“At first, they told me that my ticket was not eligible for a refund but the cancellation of the flight was not my fault.
“I even told them this happened before the Covid lockdown, and I lodged my request before they implemented the mandatory credit account policy, but they said it doesn’t matter at what date I lodged my request,” she said.
When she contacted the airline, she was told that a credit account had already been made for her, and that there was nothing else they could do.
“I know the amount doesn’t seem as much as what others have lost, but for me as a single parent, it is not a sum that I can easily cough up,” she said.
Many frustrated customers have turned to a private Facebook group created early this year where nearly 800 passengers seeking refunds are trying to get their money back.
Another Facebook group has almost 600 members, some of whom say they have waited for years with no definite answers given.
Adina said disruptions occur with all airlines from time to time, and that AirAsia works hard to keep these to a minimum.
When a disruption does occur, she said, the airline notifies guests as quickly as possible through email or message, and provides the relevant alternative travel provisions.
“Our priority is to consistently provide the very best in terms of safe, affordable, and reliable air travel,” she said.
Still, hundreds continue to complain about their experiences.
“I feel that AirAsia is ripping people off,” Dave said. “We use the airline because we can’t afford more costly carriers, and this is how they treat us.
“I know we shouldn’t paint everyone with the same brush but from now on I will be very hesitant to do business with any Malaysian company if this is how we will be treated.”