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ComCom issues warning to ferry operator after Cook Strait cancellations

Author
Georgina Campbell,
Publish Date
Tue, 28 May 2024, 11:58am
StraitNZ, which owns Bluebridge, and rival operator Interislander were plagued with breakdowns and engine problems early last year. Photo / Mark Mitchell
StraitNZ, which owns Bluebridge, and rival operator Interislander were plagued with breakdowns and engine problems early last year. Photo / Mark Mitchell

ComCom issues warning to ferry operator after Cook Strait cancellations

Author
Georgina Campbell,
Publish Date
Tue, 28 May 2024, 11:58am

The Commerce Commission has issued a warning to the owner of Bluebridge for potentially misrepresenting consumers’ rights to compensation when Cook Strait ferry sailings were delayed or cancelled.  

StraitNZ, which owns Bluebridge, and rival operator Interislander were plagued with breakdowns and engine problems early in 2023.  

Passengers resorted to sleeping in their cars and on the floor of the ferry terminal. Waikato man Rob and his wife were caught up in the cancellations and camped out at a service station to check the terminal daily to see if a standby sailing was available.  

Rob told the Herald at the time the situation was “a total balls-up”.  

“We were told to go on standby, so every day we go to the line at 6am, 11am and 5pm to check and see if anyone has failed to show up. One guy got so frustrated he kicked down the door at the terminal, and tempers are definitely rising a little bit.”  

As of October last year, the Commerce Commission had received 67 inquiries about the ferry companies, of which 46 related to Interislander alone. 

The outcome of the probe into Bluebridge has been revealed today. 

Commerce Commission fair trading general manager Vanessa Horne said Kiwi consumers have rights under the Consumer Guarantees Act (CGA) when using ferry services. 

“This means consumers may be entitled to compensation for ferry delays or cancellations, where they were not caused by events outside of the operator’s control.” 

Bluebridge’s terms and conditions previously stated the company did not have any liability for ferry delays or cancellations, which directly contradicted the rights set out in the act, Horne said. 

”In the commission’s view, this was likely a breach of the Fair Trading Act as it misled consumers of their potential rights under the CGA.” 

Bluebridge appeared to understand its obligations under the CGA in practice, despite its terms and conditions indicating otherwise, she said. 

”From the information we received, Bluebridge honoured consumers’ rights under the CGA when compensation claims were made following a cancellation or delay of a ferry service. 

“However, since Bluebridge’s terms and conditions specifically excluded liability, it’s likely that some consumers did not reach out for compensation that they were entitled to.” 

Queues of vehicles at the Bluebridge terminal in Wellington last year. Photo / SuppliedQueues of vehicles at the Bluebridge terminal in Wellington last year. Photo / Supplied 

Bluebridge has taken a reasonable approach in deciding if events were outside of its control, which may give it grounds to decline a claim for compensation under the act, Horne said. 

The ferry company has improved its terms and conditions in response to the investigation, Horne said. 

The Commerce Commission’s investigation into Interislander is ongoing. 

The Herald has previously revealed some customers waited on the phone for up to five hours after their Interislander sailings were cancelled earlier this year. 

Ewa Kusmierczyk was in Christchurch with her family in February 2023 when their Interislander sailing home was cancelled at the last minute. 

She said they were offered no support and had to make their own way home, paid $1000 for flights, and had to leave their car behind. 

“It was an expense that we didn’t really need... but we got home and we were able to borrow a car for a few weeks.” 

Kusmierczyk could not be refunded for the tickets at the time because she had paid for them by transferring money from her bank account to avoid a credit card fee. 

She finally got her money back six weeks later but only after submitting the refund form twice and making several phone calls. 

“The only reason I got the refund is because I essentially chased it up... I was really peeved-off at that point, probably like hundreds of other people.” 

Interislander has subsequently improved its system to provide refunds. 

“We have added a field to our booking form to capture additional banking details, allowing us to make a refund to a customer’s account without needing to go back to the customer for this information. This makes the process much faster,” Interislander said in a statement. 

Georgina Campbell is a Wellington-based reporter who has a particular interest in local government, transport, and seismic issues. She joined the Herald in 2019 after working as a broadcast journalist. 

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