Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Malaysian AirAsia is facing a wave of complaints from customers who say they have yet to receive a refund for flights that were canceled or rescheduled during the pandemic.
AirAsia and its subsidiary AirAsia X (AAX), both owned by Capital A Berhad, canceled thousands of flights in 2020 and 2021 after the Malaysian government closed state and international borders to curb the spread of COVID-19.
But months after the budget airline resumed flights following the lifting of interstate and international border restrictions for Malaysians in October, hundreds of customers took to social media to complain about poor customer service and long waits to receive refunds.
Rohana Betak, 60, said she requested a 4,000 Malaysian ringgit ($911) refund after the airline canceled its flights between Senai and Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state, following the introduction of a nationwide lockdown. in March 2020.
Betak, who planned to visit the area around Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest peak, with his family in October 2021, said the airline’s automated online customer service only offered him the option of traveling by plane. different dates. Betak decided not to accept the offer due to uncertainty about when the restrictions would be lifted and concerns about contracting COVID-19. Two years later, he says that he is still waiting for his money back.
“In my application, I said it was okay to refund my booking credits, but instead I was reminded in June 2020 that I had to board the flight to Sabah on a different date and there would be no refunds,” Betak told Al Jazeera.
“It wasn’t helpful because instead of at least offering me credit in refunds, he told me I had no choice but to travel on different dates.”
Travel to Sabah before October 2021 was strictly limited to certain categories of travelers, including those traveling for work and those born in the state. Rohana and her family did not fall into any exempt category.
“When he demanded that I take another flight, I asked if they wanted to send me and my family to our deaths.” Betak said. “It’s so frustrating and I’m so tired of trying to get my money back, so I’ve accepted that I may not get my money back.”
Many of the complaints were directed at AVA, AirAsia’s online chatbot, which is the single line of communication between customers and the airline for booking or flight-related issues.
In particular, some have questioned why it’s so difficult to contact customer service to request a refund, even for flights booked since pandemic restrictions were lifted.
Customer Aulia Chaerisa Salleh said she is awaiting a refund for a flight between Batam and Jakarta that was booked earlier this month after she was told there were no seats available.
“I paid for my ticket and it didn’t register in the system so I tried to get my tickets refunded. I tried AVA’s live chat but it’s not helpful at all. It’s been days, I haven’t heard from them,” she said.
Under AirAsia’s current refund policy, the airline offers customers a refund, credit or a new travel date every time a flight is canceled or postponed.
AirAsia told Al Jazeera that the airline is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with consumer regulators across the region to ensure compliance with all local regulations.
“AirAsia Group’s policies are in line with many low-cost carriers in the travel industry around the world and comply with all regulatory requirements, and as a customer-focused airline, we have focused on resolving all queries from customers. customers during the pandemic as soon as possible. ”, said a spokesman.
The airline group said it has resolved more than 90 percent of refund requests and has pledged to resolve a small number of pending claims as soon as possible.
“In Malaysia, for example, our current refund progress is only 0.03 per cent of the refund requests we receive and we expect to complete the refund exercise for all outstanding inquiries in the coming months,” the spokesperson said, adding that the past two years had been the most challenging in commercial aviation history.
The spokesperson added that “our passengers remain our number one priority” and the airline “will continue to improve our services to offer the best in terms of safe, affordable and reliable air travel.”
Tan Kok Liang, chairman of the Malaysian Tourism and Travel Agents Association (MATTA), said the backlog of refunds is a short-term problem and his 3,100 members will continue to book with AirAsia for as long as customers ask.
“The problem child is AAX and while air connectivity is crucial to tourism recovery, according to media reports, AirAsia should be accountable to all stakeholders,” Tan told Al Jazeera.
The hefty compensation paid to the airline’s co-founders, Tony Fernandez and Kamarudin Maranun, who took home a combined 30 million ringgit ($6.8 million) last year, has also drawn attention.
Following the release of Capital A’s 2021 Annual Report last month, some social media users expressed their frustration on Fernandez’s personal Instagram accounts, with one comment criticizing AirAsia as “the only airline that doesn’t have a flight number.” customer service phone number.
Despite generous executive compensation, AAX, the group’s long-haul airline, was forced last year to undergo a debt restructuring to save itself from liquidation after racking up huge debts during the pandemic.
In March, AAX announced that it had completed its debt restructuring after creditors previously agreed to a deal under which the airline would pay only 0.5 percent of outstanding debt and terminate existing contracts to restructure RM33.65 billion. (US$8.1 billion) of liabilities.
During the debt restructuring, the group offered travelers travel credits instead of flights.
However, the Malaysian Aviation Commission (MAVCOM) urged the airline to refund customers for purchased tickets while threatening to exercise its powers under the Malaysian Aviation Commission Act 2015.
Capital A posted revenue of RM1.7 billion ($387 million) in fiscal 2021, down 47% from the previous year, as capacity fell to just 36% of 2020 levels.