Members of a tour group left stranded in Shanghai for three days after a typhoon caused them to miss a connecting flight are seeking compensation from their travel agency.
The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is looking into their complaint, which raises the issue of what agencies should do when their customers are faced with an extended flight delay.
The group of 14 Malaysians and Singaporeans had paid CS Travel about $2,300 each for a six-day tour to Hokkaido in Japan and a four-day tour in Shanghai, China.
THE LAW COMES FIRST
The law provides the minimum protection and protection of the consumer rights that cannot be ousted or displaced by a private agreement.
VETERAN LAWYER AMOLAT SINGH, on how the legislature trumps other clauses agreed between agencies and customers
They were supposed to fly to Hokkaido via Shanghai on July 11, but a typhoon caused their flight to be delayed. By the time they reached Shanghai on the night of July 12, they had missed their original connecting flight to Hokkaido.
Doctorate student Chan Eng Aik, 26, who accompanied his parents on the trip, said the group realised their rescheduled flight to Hokkaido was on July 15 only upon arrival in Shanghai, when they received their boarding passes.
Mr Chan said: "We were aware that we would miss our first connecting flight. But I'm most upset that the travel agency didn't tell us the next flight was three days later. They simply encouraged us to board the flight to Shanghai."
On July 13, the agency arranged for half a day of activities and dinner for the group. On July 14, the group were left on their own, they said. They reached Hokkaido on July 15 and, on the afternoon of July 17, returned to Shanghai for the four-day tour.
Seven of them are now asking the agency for a 50 per cent refund, as they spent only three days instead of six in Hokkaido. The other seven have accepted the agency's offer of a $400 refund.
A clause in the Travel Agents Regulations states that agents have to give their clients an option to either cancel their booking or accept the modified tour if there are "material alterations" made to the tour.
The travellers said they were not asked if they wanted to cancel their bookings.
Lawyer Chung Ting Fai, representing CS Travel, said the agency reserves the right to alter and modify the tour without prior notice based on the land and airline final arrangement. This was stated in the contract that the group signed.
As the original flight had not been cancelled, but only rescheduled, the agency was "not able" to give the travellers an option to cancel the tour, Mr Chung said.
He added that the agency had tried to put the group on the next earliest flight out, which was on July 15. The $400 refund was the value of the $300 hotel stay and $100 meal allowance that the travellers missed out on in Hokkaido.
But veteran lawyer Amolat Singh said the legislature trumps all other clauses and, in this case, the agency should have given the travellers a choice to cancel their trip.
"The law provides the minimum protection and protection of the consumer rights that cannot be ousted or displaced by a private agreement," he said. He said the travellers could claim damages, adding that such holiday contracts are among "very rare" cases in which "the law allows damages for loss of enjoyment and disappointment".
Ms Ong Ling Lee, STB's director of travel agents and tourist guides, said the board is aware of the feedback. "We are looking into the matter and will take further actions, if necessary, should they be found to have contravened the relevant legislation," she added.
The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) has received seven complaints against CS Travel this year, but none of them were related to this tour.
Case executive director Seah Seng Choon advised consumers to buy comprehensive travel insurance. Those who have their tours cancelled or delayed due to unforeseen circumstances can try to negotiate some form of compensation with their travel agency, or approach Case for assistance.