Coronavirus threatens to spoil airlines’ relationship with customers


Visiting California was on Amrita’s mind since she got her first job in 2020. She saved and planed a trip to Las Vegas and booked her tickets last December for a travel in April. Thanks to the outbreak which forced India to cancel international flights, Amirta’s plan is stuck and so are her Rs 42,500 (ticket price).

Gulf major Etihad has refused to provide her refund and instead has given her a voucher of equivalent amount which can be used till 31 July 2021. With the virus spread becoming severe in US, Amrita is unsure of any international travel in near future and now spends at least 10 minutes daily in trying to get her refund.

“I called them and they were just robotic, repeating the same information, that Etihad has decided not to give refunds and offer a voucher,” said Amrita, 25. “They wouldn’t deviate from the repetition and wouldn’t pass me over to anyone else. Just said I could log a complaint but that wouldn’t get me a refund.”

The same story reverberates in domestic sectors as all Indian are refusing to refund cash and instead giving a credit shell which can be used later.

Travelers have run into huge hassles with refusing to refund cancelled flights pocketing millions owed to customers leading to people questioning the objective of spending tax payer’s money to bailout while they hold the taxpayer at ransom.

Indian civil aviation regulation mandates airlines to offer passengers a refund if a flight is cancelled, with exceptions for circumstances like bad weather.

“If you are informed of the flight cancellation less than two weeks before but, up to 24 hours of the scheduled departure time, the airline must offer an alternate flight allowing you or refund the ticket amount as acceptable by you,” the Ministry of Civil Aviation’s passenger charter notes.

“It happens in normal times, but country lockdowns have dissolved schedules for weeks forcing airlines to park their fleets and guarding their cash as revenue withers. If forced to give refund now, one or more than one airline will be out of business,” says an airline executive.

His comment echoes the message airline trade group IATA sent day before yesterday urging governments to relax regulation on cancellation refund.

“We believe the best answer for both airlines and travel agents is for regulators to ease requirements for cash refunds and allow airlines to issue vouchers instead. This would remove the pressure that is currently on agents to issue cash refunds at a time when airlines are making decisions based on their own need to preserve cash,” IATA said.

Their customers though are taking to social media to complain they can’t get their money back.

India’s aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has also been flooded with complaints from passengers whose money has been stuck with airlines but the regulator till now has remained a mute spectator fearing that pushing airlines for cash refund will stretch the already struggling into bankruptcy. “We are concerned about the situation but we have to take a balanced view regarding this as we have to save both passengers and airlines,” a DGCA official said adding that India has still not agreed to IATA’s suggestion for voucher instead of a cash refund.

A second airline executive whose own Rs 25,000 is stuck with British Airways because of a family vacation he planned in May says that the best idea is to give airlines a longer window to return the money. “Give a window of one year to reschedule. If the passenger still doesn’t, the money can be refunded back after one year. Till then, situation will probably improve and airlines will have some cash buffer.”

But explaining the same to Amrita who has faced a salary cut hitting her budget is a daunting task. She wants the cash refund “as soon as possible.”

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