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Letters from April 2018

Each month, our experts answer members' questions. If you're a paying Consumer member and have a consumer issue, you can contact our advice line for help.

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Airfare downgrade

In September, we booked two “premium economy” fares for a flight to Australia. Not long before our departure in January, the airline had trouble with its fleet and had to change the aircraft for our return leg and downgraded our seats to economy (the substitute plane had no premium economy option). The airline apologised for the “disappointment” but didn’t offer a refund or compensation. It argued the economy fare price at the time of rebooking was higher than what we’d paid for our premium seats, which we bought on sale. My issue is that we booked premium economy and paid significantly more than a standard economy fare. The airline now cannot provide a premium economy seat – for quite valid reasons – but has a policy that means it’s bad luck for us and we are now effectively out of pocket as a result. Do we have any remedies under the Consumer Guarantees Act? A MEMBER

WE SAY: The Consumer Guarantees Act (CGA) says the airline can’t provide you with a lesser service than the one for which you paid. The difference between a premium economy and an economy fare is substantial. In our view, you’re entitled to a refund of the difference in price between the fares at the time you booked. We suggest you contact the airline again and point out its obligations under the CGA. If it refuses compensation, your next step would be to lodge a claim in the Disputes Tribunal.

UPDATE: The airline refunded the fare difference and offered 300 air points by way of an apology.

Stained outdoor furniture

Our outdoor lounge suite was delivered in January. We paid $14,000 for an outdoor dining table, a three-piece couch and a coffee table. The salesperson told us the teak was of the highest quality available and the squabs were made of excellent quality, fully washable UV-protected fabric. We were also told we could leave the furniture outside all year round – and that it would even be OK if it wasn’t under cover. Apparently, the teak would “silver off” over time. The furniture arrived with no care instructions so I asked the retailer to send some through. We placed the furniture in our outdoor area under a covered pergola that provides some shelter from the weather. Last week, after a night of rain, we noticed considerable staining from the teak wood over a large area of the outdoor squabs. I emailed the company to ask how to clean these and it responded saying the stains from the teak cannot be removed! We would not have purchased this suite, especially with white squabs, had we known the teak would leach and stain the squabs. The retailer has offered to professionally clean the squabs, even though this probably won’t get rid of the stains. Could you please let us know what our rights are in this situation? A MEMBER

WE SAY: The stains on the white squabs means this suite is clearly not of acceptable quality. You wouldn’t have bought it if you’d known this would happen. While the retailer has offered to pay for professional cleaning, you still face the prospect of stains appearing the next time it rains. If the problem with the suite can’t be fixed, you have the right to reject it and choose a replacement of the same type and similar value or a full refund of your purchase price.

Vacuums and suction power

We are due to purchase a vacuum cleaner and have checked Consumer reports. The reports don’t mention suction power in watts and airflow capacity. Can you help me with this? I understand that high wattage does not equate to better suction. FERDINAND RAMOS

Paul Smith, Consumer head of testing, says: You’re right in thinking higher wattage doesn’t mean better suction. The problem is wattage is measured at the motor but, to get suction, that motor power has to be transferred to the air at the end of the hose. How much power can be used to suck dirt from your floor depends on the design of the vacuum, particularly the cleaning head. There is a measure the industry is starting to use to replace wattage: air watts. This is a better definition of suction power as it measures the power available to suck air into the hose. It combines measurements of the suction power at the hose end and airflow. However, not all manufacturers measure it or include it in their product specs. We take a different approach and measure the ability of a vacuum to pick up dirt. That bypasses the problems with wattage or air watts or any other measure of suction. We want to measure how well a vacuum cleaner, however it achieves it, picks up dirt and hair from carpets and hard floors. We think that’s the best approach, as it relates directly to how we all use a vacuum cleaner, rather than the theory behind how it is designed.

Misleading fat-free labelling

I’m always intrigued by the widespread use of the “XX percent fat-free” label on food packages. For example, you sometimes see packages claiming to be “95% fat-free”, which means it contains five percent fat. A cheeky way to turn a negative into a positive! What are the rules governing this? RICHARD NIEDERER

Belinda Castles, Consumer senior writer, says: We’ve had our eye on this type of labelling for years and campaigned for guidelines about which products can make percentage fat-free claims. The nutrition and health-related claims standard (part of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code) states that to make a percentage fat-free claim, the product must be low fat (no more than 3% fat). This means you shouldn’t be seeing any “95% fat-free” claims. However, manufacturers can still use “low fat” claims to make products high in sugar or salt seem more appealing. We’ve given our Bad Taste Food Awards to products that do just this. Sugar-laden marshmallows boasting they’re “fat free” were among our winners last year. Simply being fat-free doesn’t mean a product is healthy if it’s loaded with sugar!

Induction cooktops

I have a cardiac pacemaker. Would an induction cooktop be a problem? GRAHAME FRASER

Erin Bennett, Consumer technical writer, says: The area around an induction cooktop is electromagnetically charged but it’s unlikely to affect pacemakers or other implanted electronic devices. That said, some pacemaker brands recommend you stay at least 60cm away from an induction cooktop. Check with the manufacturer of your pacemaker and your doctor about possible safety concerns.

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