In early 2020, Lal Bahadur Singh had booked 11 air tickets – some for Bagdogra and some for Bhopal – for holidays at different times of the year. All his travel plans got rescinded with the eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic in March. Since then, Singh is awaiting his ticket refunds of up to ₹1 lakh from various airlines. One year on, passengers like Singh prolongs negotiating with airlines on refunds after travellers had to abstain from their plans as Covid-19 cases spread across the country and flights were hampered. This comes after the Supreme Court (SC) in September 2020 directed airlines to deliver an instantaneous refund for tickets booked for travel up to May 24, 2020. Airlines were provided with time till March 31, 2021, to refund tickets implicated due to lockdown. Aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) also had handed out a notification on April 16 last year decreeing a timely refund for tickets booked during lockdown (March 25-April 14).
As per DGCA’s monthly traffic report, refund-related cases persist in constituting a significant slab of complaints this year. In January, ticket refunds formed 41.3% of the complaints. In December 2020, it was 61.4%, in November 62.4%, and in October, 83.9% of passengers complained of refund issues to the regulator.
“As per DGCA circular and SC order, regardless of cancellation date, if the flight is cancelled due to Covid restrictions, then full refund is payable. Most of my air tickets are from SpiceJet and Air India. While SpiceJet has assured to refund after March 31, I have got no response from the national carrier on the issue,” said Singh, a Mulund resident and a frequent traveller.
Goregaon resident Anuradha Joshi booked a SpiceJet flight on February 16 last year for Mumbai-Delhi travel on March 26 but cancelled tickets on March 23. “Despite several requests, Spicejet has not refunded my entire money. I paid ₹11,592 but Spicejet has put only ₹2,016 in the credit shell. Moreover, I have no idea what will happen to my return tickets to Mumbai that were booked in Air India as they have not been replying to my emails and calls,” asserted Joshi, who has jotted down letters to not only the airline but also to the Prime Minister’s Office and DGCA.
SpiceJet spokesperson said, “Refunds are governed by the order of the Supreme Court and we are adhering to those directions.”
Air India said the revenue system was severely impacted due to the complete stoppage of flights during the lockdown period, followed by the gradual restoration of flights in domestic and international sectors (through Air Transportation Bubble arrangements).
“In view of this unprecedented situation, Air India has stopped automatic refunds in Global Sales Distribution. Ticket refunds are being processed through Air India’s own offices within pre-assigned budgeted amounts. The refunds are progressively increasing with the increase in revenue of the company. Air India is planning to open automated refunds on more occasions as the situation improves.”
To make passengers utilise their tickets, Air India has relaxed several ticketing rules and offered passengers options. This includes a change in flight, date, name (for domestic only) and route for passengers booked between March 15 and August 24. International passengers booked from March 15 till September 2020 have been given options to change date/flight/routing/booking code till March 31, 2021, and the value of the ticket is protected. Ticket cancellation charges are also waived for all these tickets.
Sushma Patel, a Colaba resident, who was set to travel to Bhutan in May last year, took two trips in December to utilise her money stuck with airlines. “I preferred taking credit shell and making use of some money. However, around ₹26,000 are still with SpiceJet. I am clueless of the way ahead, in case the airline does not return my money.”
The SC order had asserted that the value by credit shell would be augmented by 0.50% per month (6% per annum) till June 30 2020, and after that till March 31, 2021, by 0.75% per month (9% per annum). The Apex court had hinted that only the airlines in financial hardship could issue credit shell vouchers till March 31, 2021. After this, the airlines will have to pay back the credit shell amount with such enhanced value.
“It should be ensured by the passengers that all their refund after March 31 is made with the enhanced amount,” said advocate Shirish Deshpande, chairperson of consumer body Mumbai Grahak Panchayat that was party to the plea in SC. “Airlines and even agents are taking undue advantage of the ignorance of passengers about the SC verdict. The Apex court had clearly said that only airlines in distress have time till March 31, after that money has to be mandatorily refunded.”