Air ticket cancellations: Unfair trade practice, anti-consumer

Air ticket cancellations: Unfair trade practice, anti-consumer

A recent press release from the Ministry of Civil Aviation says that the DGCA has been asked to look into the high prices being charged for air tickets to people who make last minute bookings during the vacation season. The ministry has also apparently asked the DGCA to look into the cancellation charges being levied by airlines for passengers who are unable to undertake their journey at the last minute.

The controversy on cancellation fees has come into the limelight in recent times because airlines have started charging a ‘minimum fee’ of Rs 1500 per passenger as the charges for a cancellation of an air ticket. This is a 100 per cent rise over the cancellation fee a few months ago, which was Rs 750 per passenger. There is now talk of ‘graded cancellation fees’ which will rise as the passenger cancels a ticket closer to the departure time.
Several questions come to the fore while discussing this vexatious issue. Airlines go overboard to woo passengers, with ‘special rates’ starting from as low as Rs 1500 per passenger, in various schemes, which ask consumers to make their travel plans weeks and months in advance. There is an inherent risk in making such bookings, because, as they say ‘there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.’ Any event which causes a postponement, change of plans or cancellation, leads to an almost 100 per cent loss to the poor consumer. So much for the airline ad line, ‘great deal available for a few days only!’

These patently unfair trade practices and anti-consumer acts must be seen in the light of the repeated statement of the airlines that they want Indians to fly more often. Further, there is an intense fare war and every passenger is a valuable asset in their growth plan. Great plans and philosophies are espoused by these airlines but even while providing a meal or additional services, there is no hesitation in charging fees which border on the ridiculous.

Frequent fliers are amused to see a samosa being sold at Rs 80 mid-air, when the same could be available at a fourth of the price on ground. Airlines seem to have forgotten that their core business is flying passengers and any amenities given at reasonable prices will be an add-on to the lure of flying instead of acting as a deterrent.

Some other decisions of airlines also make little sense, when viewed in the light of modern consumer-friendly practices. No airline allows a change in reservation from one flight to a previous one, on say the Mumbai-Delhi sector, where there are flight movements almost every hour. A business traveller who reaches the airport early, will not be allowed to board a previous flight even it is half-empty, because this amounts to a change in reservation.

The difference in fare demanded in case one wants to travel on the earlier flight will be the cost of the ticket at the moment of change (which will be sky-high) less the cost of the original price paid – often amounting to more than the cost of the purchased ticket.

The concept of an ‘open ticket’ wherein one could buy a ticket and get into any flight where there is space is a forgotten entity in all domestic and international flights. Is there hence any reason to doubt the pessimism of consumers to the ‘special offers’ which come up periodically, particularly if they have had a bad experience in the past?

Fare war

There are other notorious malpractices in the fare war between airlines. If a flight schedule is changed due to changes in the time table or other reasons, the passenger must compulsorily fly in the alternative given by the airline (which is with due respect, close to the original timing).

But if the consumer states that he is unhappy with the new timing and wants to change the flight time himself, this is taken as ‘voluntary change of flight’ and all applicable charges will be levied. Refunds in such cases are also subject to cancellation charges as usual for no fault of the customer. This is in blatant violation of international flight practices which Indian airlines swear to profess by.

When the airlines are out to make a fast buck, why would travel agents and portals stay away from the feast on offer? A cancellation on a travel portal usually involves the fee charged by the airline plus a cancellation fee by the portal/agent, which means a double whammy for the poor consumer who thought he could save a few rupees by booking through them.

Some agents/portals add to the passengers’ woes by offering escrow account deposits by the customer to be set off against future purchase of tickets. When a passenger insists on a cash refund, the same is delayed by weeks and months and is often a nightmare to follow-up and recover.

The sad part of this entire story is that all airlines are united in this cartelisation to loot consumers under the name of cancellation fees. The DGCA has not yet summoned courage to challenge these shady practices by airlines and protect the interests of the passenger for whom it is supposed to be in existence.

(The writer is Hon Secretary, Consumer Guidance Society of India, Mumbai)

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