Price gouging claims probed

The Cayman Islands’ government watchdog has started a wide-ranging investigation into whether some Cayman Airways customers got ripped off while attempting to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Dean in August.

Complaints Commissioner John Epp said his review will not be limited to the people who fell victim to what Cayman Airways CEO Patrick Strasburger said was a computer glitch that caused prices on their tickets to go higher than they were programmed to do.

Mr. Strasburger has said those customers, thought to number 100 or so, would be reimbursed for the price difference.

In response to an email press query for information on how much has been reimbursed to customers who paid higher fares, Cayman Airways responded, ‘In light of the (OCC) investigation we will not comment on this issue or answer questions surrounding this at this stage’.

Instead, the Office of the Complaints Commissioner plans to review all tickets sold in the days before the hurricane’s arrival on Monday, 20 August. Mr. Epp said OCC staff was promised full cooperation when they met with Cayman Airways executives on Tuesday.

‘We will consider the question of fares charged to all people during the lead up to the passing of Hurricane Dean,’ Mr. Epp said. ‘This may involve examining the records of approximately 5,000 transactions.’

Mr. Strasburger said the airline evacuated 5,300 people from Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac before the storm. CAL flights to Miami airport during that time had been set at US$169 plus tax for a one-way fare; and US$249 plus tax for one-way charter flights. (Caymanian Compass, 23 August)

The Compass received one report of an adult and child paying US $2,500 during the evacuation for their tickets to Miami.

‘While some people have used the term price gouging, we are seeking to determine whether Cayman Airways charged customers the advertised fare for tickets on evacuation flights,’ Mr. Epp said.

Aside from the question of what airline fares were charged to whom during the evacuation process, the OCC investigation will also consider issues such as Cayman Airways pricing policy, its process of adjusting prices, as well as the airline’s ticket and distribution policy.

The complaints commissioner review of the distribution process may look into how some people ended up with tickets off island while others were told none were available during the scramble at Owen Roberts Airport in the days before Dean struck.

Mr. Epp said he also wants a fuller understanding of the explanation that certain pricing problems arose from a computer glitch. He said computer experts would be brought in to check data entry on the CAL system.

‘It’s important for us to make finding of fact of what really went on in the lead up to Hurricane Dean and to declare whether it was a matter of pricing policy, a computer glitch, or human error so the record can be set straight.’

The complaints commissioner decided to begin an investigation into the issue due to the sheer number of news media reports and public complaints on radio talk shows that came in following the hurricane.

Mr. Epp said he hoped this review could be completed within a few months.

The OCC report will be made public in the Cayman Islands Legislative Assembly when it is completed. If evidence of maladministration is found, the complaints commissioner can make recommendations to correct it.

Compass staffer Cliodhna McGowan contributed to this report.

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