I’m not sure whether I’ve got any unclaimed Qantas flight credits.

I haven’t looked, either because I’m too busy or can’t be bothered. Which is exactly what Qantas wants. And not only Qantas. Separating out those people who are desperate or determined to get their money from those who give up is a standard business practice.

It’s called price discrimination, although Qantas appears to have added a twist.

Washing machine, fridge and computer manufacturers all do it. They sell their products for a standard price, and then offer a $200 or $400 “cash back” to buyers who fill in and send off a form when they get home.

The manufacturers know time-poor, lazy or well-off customers won’t bother, so they won’t need to send them cash. But the customers who do bother will really need the cash, and probably wouldn’t buy the products without it.

That way they can sell to people who otherwise wouldn’t have bought, while at the same time charging a high price to people prepared to pay it. They’ve arranged things so the two groups sort themselves out.

A tax on the time-poor

Qantas (and Virgin) could have easily refunded money to people who bought flights during the first years of COVID and had to cancel because of lockdowns. In most cases, Qantas had their credit card numbers. It still has them. It could refund the best part of A$500 million right now.

Instead, it makes it really difficult to get money back. It requires phone calls, waiting on the line and fishing out old emails and customer codes.

For a while, until it backed down days ahead of its chief executive bringing forward his retirement, Qantas said those credits would expire unless they were reclaimed, knowing full well many would not be.

But it’s not only Qantas imposing a tax on the time-poor.

A tax on those who won’t pick up the phone

News Corporation will allow you to subscribe to its papers with a click and a card. But when you hit “unsubscribe”, you get given a phone number.

When (and if) you get around to ringing it, you are subjected to an ordeal in which the operator gives you reason after reason not to unsubscribe, instead of acting on your request. You can insist, of course, but it takes time and effort.

The (NewsCorp-owned) Wall Street Journal also makes it impossible to unsubscribe without a phone call… unless you live in California. There, and only there – not in Australia, not in the rest of the United States – you are allowed to unsubscribe online because of a law forcing providers to offer the option.

Australia’s banks are experts at separating lazy customers from diligent shoppers, as are electricity companies.

They routinely offer customers who switch (or say they are about to switch) better rates than customers who stay, turning a time-poor tax into a loyalty tax.

Read more: When the price is not right: technology price gouging in Australia

A tax on loyal customers

You might think a tax on those who don’t chase the best deals is effectively a tax on the better-off, as they are the least likely to need savings.

Yet an array of evidence across a wide range of industries assembled by David Byrne and Leslie Martin finds loyalty taxes hit the poorest the hardest.

Byrne and Martin set up a call centre inside Melbourne University. Pexels

In an intriguing and expensive experiment in 2017, Byrne and Martin attempted to find out why this was.

They staffed a call centre at The University of Melbourne, in which actors phoned electricity companies, provided or let slip a few details, and said they were thinking of switching.

Among those details was eligibility for Victoria’s low-income energy subsidy.

Byrne and Martin found no discrimination against low-income callers because they said they had low incomes. But they did find that where the callers sounded as if they lacked information, they got offered lower discounts.

A premium price dispute

Disturbing evidence tendered in the Federal Court suggests some Australian insurance companies may be systematising discrimination against Australians who lack access to information.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission has alleged some insurers set premiums not only on the basis of risk, but also on the basis of what a computer model tells them about the likelihood of each customer tolerating a price hike.

ASIC says the alleged practice is known internally as “renewal optimisation”.

Those claims are disputed, with insurer IAG telling The Australian Financial Review: “We don’t agree with how ASIC has characterised the process by which we calculate renewal premiums, and the impact on our customers.”

Enough for a government inquiry

Where immorality starts and standard business practice stops will be a question for a newly-established taskforce on competition. It will be headed by the Grattan Institute’s Danielle Wood (who will also head the Productivity Commission) and the former head of the Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims.

One thing they might be able to agree on immediately is that something else Qantas has been accused of doing with flight credits is beyond the pale.

Evidence supplied to the ABC in 2022 suggests that not only has Qantas been hanging on to customers’ money by directing them to use credits for flights rather than refunds, it has been jacking up the price of flights when they do – by 50% to 300%, imposing what amounts to an extra (enforced) loyalty tax.

If Qantas and others have taken standard business practices just that little bit further in recent years, there’s a small chance they’ve done us a favour. They’ve given the taskforce something to sink its teeth into.

Read more: Booking customers on cancelled flights – how could Qantas do that?

Authors: The Conversation

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