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Canceled Flights, Missing Refunds: Travelers Ask NBC Bay Area for Help

NBC Bay Area has heard from dozens of viewers having trouble getting refunds for canceled flights. Some of the most difficult cases involved travel agents.

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Emirates advertises luxury in the air.

“With a spacious cocktail bar, gourmet cuisine, and over two thousand channels on one of the widest screens in the air,” it boasts in a recent advertisement. “Emirates: the only way to do business."

When Flora Teng and her husband planned a once-in-a-lifetime trip to South Africa, they splurged on Emirates business class seats for the 24-hour journey.

“When I was planning this trip, I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to reward ourselves with business class, just so we could relax and not be super tired when we get there,” Teng said.

It was a pricey reward. She paid $10,000 in total. But then: COVID-19. Emirates canceled their flights.

“I did a lot of research," Teng said. "I was really bummed when the trip got cancelled.” 

Bummed -- then frustrated. Flora's travel agent, Flyus, wanted $500 to process her $10,000 refund.

“I really felt like they were holding it hostage," she said. "I just didn’t have any means for what to do unless I paid them.” 

Teng refused, and called NBC Bay Area.

Emirates' contract says if the airline cancels a flight, passengers get a full refund -- no fees. So, we contacted Flyus. Within 48 hours, it agreed to process Teng's full $10,000 refund -- fee-free.

A Flyus spokesperson told NBC Bay Area the $500 fee was a travel agency fee -- not an airline charge.

“In this particular case the fees were higher than usual," a Flyus employee said. "I have gone ahead and waived the fees for this customer as we do try everything we can to prioritize customer service.”

Teng says she never saw a list of fees. We asked the company to provide its fee schedule. It did not respond.

Pam Prasad in Hayward had a similar experience. Fiji Airways canceled her trip and authorized a refund. But Prasad's agent, Raj Travel in Hayward, assessed a $50-per-person refund processing fee.

By phone, Raj Travel told NBC Bay Area it's making up for the commission payment it loses when a flight booking is cancelled. Online, Raj's terms and conditions do not list a cancellation fee. We asked why. The company didn't answer.

Several other NBC Bay Area viewers told us they've faced surprise fees with travel agents. So, we turned to the American Society of Travel Advisors, and its senior vice president, Mark Meader.

“To retroactively change your terms after the booking is made is not acceptable,” Meader said.

Meader told us travel agents should not claw back a commission payment with an undisclosed fee. He recommends you get a list of fees before paying a travel agent.

“It should all be explained and agreed to up front when the booking is made," Meader said. "No surprises.”

If Flora Teng, Pam Prasad, and others had booked directly with their respective airlines, they would have had one fewer hoop to jump through, and might have gotten their money back faster.

So, why even bother booking with a travel agent? Meader says they can provide package pricing and personal assistance that some airlines might not offer.

As for Teng, she said she'll book directly with Emirates when it's time to re-book her luxury trip.

“I have to say, I am unsure if I would ever buy tickets via a travel agency again," she said.

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