Coronavirus fallout continues: Virgin Australia cancels flights to and from Hong Kong

Are you one of the thousands of travellers left in the lurch by a Virgin Australia flight cancellation sparked by the global coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak? Find out who is responsible for covering the costs and get clear on your rights as an airline customer.
Coronavirus halts Virgin Australia flights
Image source: sarah1810, Shutterstock.

Thousands of Aussie travellers have been left to renegotiate flights, after Virgin Australia announced it was cancelling all flights in and out of Hong Kong, after a “comprehensive review of the route”. The airline had previously cancelled flights between Melbourne and Hong Kong, effective from Tuesday (11 February), but yesterday advised it would also cut its remaining route, Sydney-Hong Kong, starting on 2 March.

Virgin Australia sent emails to affected travellers yesterday, advising them to contact the airline or their booking agent to make new travel plans.

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The below email – supplied to Canstar – was sent yesterday to a customer who had a flight booked home from London in April, stopping via Hong Kong, and landing in Sydney.

The airline apologised for any inconvenience the cancellation of services may have caused and requested that customers call Virgin Australia at their earliest convenience to discuss alternative options.

Virgin Australia flight cancellation email
Image supplied.

“Hong Kong has continued to be a challenging market,” Virgin Australia’s Group Chief Commercial Officer, John MacLeod, said in a statement issued yesterday.

“With a decline in demand following ongoing civil unrest, and growing concerns over the coronavirus outbreak in the wider region, we have made the decision to withdraw services.

“Current circumstances demonstrate that Hong Kong is no longer a commercially viable route for Virgin Australia to continue operating, however international tourism remains an important part of our strategy through our other international routes and partner airlines.”

Virgin Australia has recently undergone a restructure after posting a $315 million full-year loss for the 2018-19 financial year, shedding up to 750 jobs and cutting flights and routes.

Travel insurance or airline: Who is responsible if your flight is cancelled?

According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), the airline is responsible for getting you to your destination. Under the Australian Consumer Law, if something goes wrong and your flight is delayed or cancelled, you may be entitled to a refund or replacement flight, depending on circumstances such as:

  • How long the delay is
  • The reason for the delay or cancellation
  • Whether or not the airline was able to put you on another flight within a reasonable amount of time

The ACCC said if the airline refused to fix the problem or takes too long, you could get a flight with another airline and recover the costs of the replacement flights.

Virgin Australia’s website page – which it directs impacted customers to from the email sent out on Thursday – has wording similar to what the ACCC says:

“If you are entitled to receive a refund under the Guest Compensation Policy or the ACL (Australian Consumer Law) of any amount you have paid us where we have delayed or cancelled your service or have otherwise failed to provide you with the product or service, a refund will be provided for the total price paid for the product or service to the extent the services have not already been consumed,” Virgin Australia said on its consumer guarantees and refunds website page.

Your travel insurer may be able to help cover the costs of travel cancellation and unexpected disruptions to your plans in some cases, depending who you are insured with and your policy’s terms, but the fact that the coronavirus is one of the causes of this disruption could impact your ability to claim, as Canstar revealed previously.

Virgin cancels Hong Kong flights: What happens next?

Virgin Australia said impacted passengers should have been contacted by their travel agent or the airline with instructions on how to arrange an alternative flight. If you have not been contacted, it could be a wise idea to reach out to your travel provider or the airline as soon as possible.

A check of the airline’s website shows that cancelled flights may be able to be routed through Los Angeles, USA, instead, without the need to change airlines. This is made possible due to Virgin Australia’s partnership with the UK-based Virgin Atlantic. However, it could mean a change to transit times, which could impact travel plans.

“Guests booked to travel on services between Sydney and Hong Kong from 2 March, 2020, onwards, will be contacted by Virgin Australia via email, or by their travel provider to provide alternative arrangements,” Virgin’s statement said.

Can I get a refund from Virgin Australia?

Virgin Australia’s Consumer Guarantees and Refunds information states that customers are likely to only qualify for a full refund if the cancellation is due to a “major failure” which can’t be fixed.

“If there is a failure that cannot be remedied or amounts to a major failure, you are entitled to a refund and other remedies under the ACL (Australian Consumer Law),” the guarantee states. “You may also be entitled to compensation for reasonably foreseeable losses caused by a failure.”

If the airline can “reaccommodate you on to a flight within a reasonable time”, it is possible that you would not be eligible for a refund, according to the guarantee: “What constitutes a reasonable time will depend on the circumstances and may not be the same each time you travel with us.”

To find out about a refund:

  • If you booked directly through Virgin Australia, contact its Guest Contact Centre or call 13 67 89 for Australian callers.
  • If you booked through a travel agent, contact that travel agent.

Can I claim extra expenses from Virgin Australia?

You may be able to claim extra expenses from Virgin Australia, but what you can claim will likely depend on the solution provided to you by the airline or your travel agent.

The Virgin Australia press statement states that the cancellations are due to “commercial reasons”. The airline’s Guest Compensation Policy states that this type of cancellation is considered to be “within its control”, and, as such, the airline may cover “reasonable costs” associated with extra accommodation (up to $220 per room per night), airport transfers, meals (up to $50 per night per person) and certain other items.

Virgin could also either provide you with meal or drink vouchers, or cover “reasonable meal costs” if you are delayed more than two hours at an airport due to a cancellation within its control.  Virgin also notes that travelers need to keep all receipts and be able to provide evidence proving “to our reasonable satisfaction that you incurred these costs”.

If you have to reschedule your flights to a different day, and that means you need to pay extra accommodation costs because of the cancellation, it may be a wise idea to ask your travel agent or the airline if they would consider helping you to cover those extra costs. It could also be a wise idea to read its Guest Compensation Policy and Consumer Guarantees and Refunds policy thoroughly before talking to your agent or the airline.

The airline states that customers wanting to claim reasonable expenses should contact the Guest Contact Centre. Virgin Australia’s phone number is 13 67 89 (calling from Australia).

What happens if I am not happy with the solution provided by Virgin Australia?

If you are unhappy with Virgin’s solution to this cancellation, the company has “complaints and compliments” information on its website. The airline suggests selecting “Guest Contact Centre” on that form.

For more information about your rights under the Australian Consumer Law, visit the ACCC’s website at www.accc.gov.au.

Who is still flying to Hong Kong?

Some of the airlines still flying to Hong Kong from Australia, according to Google Flights information up until the end of April, include:

  • Qantas
  • Jetstar
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Air New Zealand
  • China Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Vietnam Airlines
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Thai Airways
  • Philippine Airlines
  • Scoot
  • Fiji Airways
  • Malindo Air
  • Korean Air
  • Asiana Airlines/Hong Kong Airlines
  • ANA, operated by Air Japan Company

Note, however, that some of these airlines have suspended flights to Hong Kong leaving from other locations.

Some of the airlines to have suspended or reduced lights to Hong Kong include:

  • American Airlines Group
  • United Airlines
  • Virgin Australia
  • British Airways
  • Emirates
  • Delta
  • Air Canada
  • Air Asia

Note, some of these flight suspensions are temporary, lifting in March or April, while Virgin Australia’s flights have “ceased operating” entirely.

Coronavirus: Can Australians still travel to Hong Kong?

The Australian Government’s Smartraveller website’s travel advice for Hong Kong is “Exercise a high degree of caution” (current at 13 February, 2020).

“Hong Kong has introduced additional measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus,” the website states. “From 8 February, a 14-day mandatory quarantine will be imposed on anyone entering Hong Kong from mainland China. Airline passengers, including those in transit, will be subject to increased health screening. Access to cross-border transport with mainland China may be unavailable or limited.”

The Australian Government issued a ‘do not travel’ warning last week for mainland China, due to the increased risk from the coronavirus.

“We continue to advise Australians to not travel to China due to the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak,” ,” the warning (updated on 11 February) states. “If you are currently in China, leave as soon as possible by commercial means. Expect further restrictions and travel disruptions as other countries seek to control the spread of the outbreak. Monitor your health closely and follow the advice of local authorities. Contact your airline, tour operator or travel insurance provider for departure options.”

Is it safe to travel outside Australia?

The Australian government has moved to restrict travel into Australia by people who live in, or have recently been in, China. Airports are screening many travelers for signs of the sickness, including measuring their body temperature with scanners or digital infrared thermometers. Preventative measures have been put in place in airports, such as the provision of hand sanitiser. Many travelers are also choosing to wear protective items, such as P2 masks, during transit. While it has deemed China a ‘do not travel zone’, Smartraveller does not give a definitive answer to the question ‘Is it safe to travel overseas?’. The site recommends that travelers check any warnings – and their travel insurance – before booking a new trip and also before embarking on an international journey, as well as taking precautionary measures.

Additional reporting by Ellie McLachlan.

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