Flight Centre agents slam ‘price beat guarantee’
WHEN it comes to the size and popularity of the world's travel agencies, few hold a candle to Flight Centre.
Across the globe, the company employs close to 20,000 people, runs operations in more than 20 countries and is valued at $6.5 billion.
In the 2017/18 financial year, the company made an underlying pre-tax profit of more than $380 million but as dozens of staff members claim, those whopping profits are off the back of ripping off customers and underpaying overworked staff.
Earlier this week, a report from ABC's 7.30 featured a number of former and current Flight Centre employees claiming the company's business practices go well beyond basic capitalism.
Since the program aired, hundreds more have come out of the woodwork.
'UNLESS YOU THROW AWAY YOUR MORALS, IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO MAKE A LIVING'
Speaking to news.com.au, a number of Flight Centre workers slammed the company and said they were overworked, underpaid and encouraged to overcharge customers to make a living they could survive off.
As a base salary, the average Flight Centre employee earned $33,500 a year before tax. While the base salary was barely minimum wage, the company attracted potential travel agents by telling them about the "uncapped commission" they could nab to inflate their earnings.
But, as staff told news.com.au, what the company didn't say was what was done to earn that commission.
Jessica*, a former employee who was with Flight Centre for a year, told news.com.au the company's business practices "never sat well" with her.
The Sydney-based travel agent said she often fought back when managers told her to tack on commission to her bookings.
Despite that, Jessica said she'd often come into work and find a manager had logged onto the trips she'd curated for a customer and tacked on a few thousand dollars.
"Unless you've been with company for years or throw away your morals and overcharge customers, it's impossible to make a living and get paid properly," she said.
Renee Olofsson, who also worked for Flight Centre in NSW, said the same thing had been done to her.
A current Melbourne-based staff member said travel consultants would see how much they could get away with adding on to the final price.
"You kind of pick and choose who you do it to," the staffer told the ABC.
"You aim for a 10 per cent margin (on top of the cost of the flight). I know consultants who aim for a 20 per cent margin."
Flight Centre vehemently denied its mark-up practice was "excessive".
"Our margin information is publicly available and it does not support claims that either excessive marking up is taking place or that it is happening more frequently," a Flight Centre spokesman said.
"As outlined in our philosophies, we strongly believe in a fair margin and we monitor this proactively.
"Competitive forces obviously dictate prices - there is complete visibility over pricing - and there are additional safeguards for our customers to use in the form of price beat positions and price drop protection."
The company's price beat guarantee was also something employees struggled with.
Workers told news.com.au Flight Centre's price beat promise, which was the company offer a fare for $1 cheaper than anywhere else, left them even more out of pocket.
The company used to wear the difference but eventually, the loss was put on the travel agent.
That allegation was backed up by a number of Flight Centre workers who told news.com.au that unless the price beat would cost the agent more than a few hundred dollars, they frantically had to encourage the customer to take a better deal.
If the customer wouldn't budge, that price beat came out of the consultant's commission.
"The only way to earn a living is to rip off nice people that just want to go on a holiday," Jessica said.
'YOU LIVE AND BREATHE FLIGHT CENTRE'
It isn't just Flight Centre's business practices consultants say are weighing them down - it's also the company culture where workers are encouraged to "live and breathe Flight Centre".
Described by workers as "cult-like", the idea of "work hard, play hard" was something agents were encouraged to embrace or they were left feeling on the outer.
Workers who spoke to news.com.au on the condition of anonymity said if you didn't embrace the party culture, you were left feeling alienated.
"It's toxic, you have to party or you're not friends with anyone," one worker said.
The parties and rewards on offer were a big drawcard for potential travel consultants.
Flight Centre is well-known for rewarding its workers but as all its 19,000 employees knew, no reward topped an invite to the annual "Global Gathering".
Only the top 10 per cent of workers were invited to the coveted, two-day party that could be held anywhere around the world.
Less than 3000 people working for the company were flown in and put up for it - last year's party was in Las Vegas and this year in Berlin - and they spent 48 hours partying with celebrities such as Bill Clinton and Chris Hemsworth.
"The stage is lit up like Rio Carnivale, the air is thick with energy and smells like, well, maybe a little of last night's celebrations," Flight Centre Travel Academy said of Global Gathering.
"It's like you've just walked into your own Vegas boxing match arena, except there are no losers here.
"The room looks like the love child of the Olympic Games and a party in Ibiza. The music is pumping through your veins, breathing new life back into you after the wild night before. There's a spring to your step as you walk down the aisle. You've made it!
"All you can do is grin from ear to ear, sharing a look with your teammates, because the way you feel at this moment has left you speechless."
Flight Centre employees were sent to Global Gathering as a team, which meant even if single consultants pushed back against "excessive" commission, the mark-up could be later encouraged by managers.
Flight Centre's Managing Director Graham Turner called the ABC report a "beat-up" and said the company had a risk team to monitor whether consultants were adding exorbitant fees.
"We employ 10,000 people in Australia. I can't rule out that nobody will ever do the wrong thing but if we catch someone overcharging, they get a warning, and next time they are dismissed," Mr Turner told the Australian Financial Review.
"I'm not worried about Flight Centre's brand - although it's undeniable there will be some damage - but I am worried about all this reflecting very unfairly on our frontline staff."
*Names have been changed.