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Interislander and Bluebridge both operate ferries between the North and South Islands, but have been plagued with breakdowns and engine problems over the past several weeks.
This, combined with ferries already being booked to full capacity, meant most passengers were unable to rebook for at least a few weeks, leaving many people stranded or having to fork out hundreds of dollars to fly home.
Customers have described having to abandon their cars with plans to fly back a month later and pick them up, or find medium-term accommodation until they can catch another ferry.
While airlines are required under the Civil Aviation Act to compensate passengers for unplanned costs brought on by flight cancellations, ferry passengers have been told they cannot be compensated.
Companies have given refunds for cancelled tickets, but have left passengers high and dry with no way to get home and no compensation for extra accommodation or transport.
But Consumer NZ chief executive Jon Duffy said the Consumer Guarantees Act allowed ferry customers to chase the companies for compensation, and believed they had a “strong case”.
“We argue that under the Consumer Guarantees Act, people will actually be entitled to claim back any reasonable extra costs that they incur having to remedy the failure of the ferry to provide the service that they’ve agreed to provide,” he said.
Section 32(c) of the act states the customer may get “damages” from the supplier for any loss or damage to the customer resulting from the failure to provide the service. The damages can be sought if it was “reasonably foreseeable” that the customer would suffer those damages.
“Now, in circumstances like we’ve seen in recent times where ferries are breaking down all the time and it’s becoming apparent that, you know, these assets are perhaps reaching the end of their life or are so mechanically unreliable that even the operator can’t rely on meeting their own schedule . . . that service isn’t being provided with reasonable care and perhaps those assets need to be upgraded,” Duffy said.
“If you do need to purchase an alternative ferry ticket or you do need to store your car for a significant period of time and buy a flight and then perhaps fly back and get the car and then get it on a boat, you know, those costs do start to add up. They’re all reasonably foreseeable as a result of the failure of the ferry company to provide the service to you.
“If the ferry company is refusing to cover those damages, then it would be well worth consumers pursuing that through the Disputes Tribunal.”
He recommended affected customers document all of their expenses by getting receipts and taking photographs, “so that when you turn around to try and claim those damages back off KiwiRail, or whatever the transport provider is, you’ve got evidence of it.
“Based on precedent and kind of legal academic thought, there is a strong case here that transport companies can’t contract out of their obligations here under the Consumer Guarantees Act.”
But asked again, Interislander executive general manager Walter Rushbrook said it was “complex” and “we are working through the legislation and legal requirements”.
“The statutory regime for ferry operators is also very different to that of airlines due to a number of international treaties that apply to airlines. For ferry operators, the focus is making sure we meet our obligations under New Zealand legislation and our terms and conditions.
“We assess each customer’s situation on a case-by-case basis, but there are circumstances which mean some of the current delays are outside Interislander’s control. Depending on those circumstances, the Consumer Guarantees Act may not apply but, where it does or where we have obligations under our terms, we make sure we comply with those obligations, including appropriate compensation.”
Rushbrook said two passenger ferry services are operating across the Cook Straight again following issues which left people stranded and streets clogged with cars.
“We are back in action and all of our ferries are going,” Rushbrook said.
Bluebridge has also been contacted for comment.
Today they announced their ferry Connemara, which has been experiencing engine problems, has a further issue that needs dealing with.
“The ship will return to Wellington for further investigation and repair work. At this stage, we can’t confirm when Connemara will return to service carrying passengers.
The following sailings have been cancelled for passengers, and further cancellations are likely.
“Unfortunately, we have almost no available space on other sailings over the coming weeks, and the only option we will be able to provide to affected passengers is a full refund of the ticket.”
-By Melissa Nightingale