Lockdown fallout: Govt intervention offers little respite for frustrated flyers

Most airlines have offered a credit shell for cancelled bookings.

The government has offered little respite to frustrated customers whose flights have been cancelled during the national lockdown. Senior officials of the ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) met heads of domestic private airlines on Wednesday to discuss refunds for cancelled flights. Following this, the MoCA issued an advisory asking airlines to issue refunds within three weeks to only those customers who booked tickets during the initial lockdown for travel within the period when flights remained suspended.

If a customer seeks refunds for tickets booked during the first lockdown (March 25-April 14) for domestic and international travel between March 25 and May 3, “the airline shall refund the full amount collected without levy of cancellation charge. The refund shall be made within a period of three weeks from the date of request of cancellation,” MoCA said.

The mandate does not include passengers who have booked tickets before the lockdown started, even if the travel period falls within the lockdown period. There is also no clarity on whether customers who have booked tickets through online travel operators will be eligible for the refunds. “The current directive is to address those customers who are the most affected. We have received complaints from deeply distressed people who were hoping to return home and booked one-way tickets from April 15,” said one official.

So far, most airlines have offered a credit shell for cancelled bookings, which passengers can later redeem against flight tickets, instead of a full refund. The lockdown was initially announced for 21 days and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had issued an order stating that flights would be suspended between March 25 and April 14. Airlines kept forward bookings open from April 15, and a “substantial number of travellers” booked flights expecting operations to resume, the MoCA said.

Earlier this week, the government extended the lockdown till May 3. Frustrated customers took to social media demanding refunds for the cancelled bookings. The MoCA said it “acknowledges the unusual condition” arising from the extension of the lockdown. The DGCA will monitor the implementation, and take “action if needed”, if airlines fail to comply, a senior official said.

Questions were also raised as to why the government has not intervened to stop private airlines from continuing forward bookings. Domestic airlines continue to offer tickets for travel from May 4. The issue was raised during the meeting between MoCA officials and airline heads. “Airlines cannot stop forward bookings as their revenues have already dwindled and forward bookings are one of the remaining avenues to get cash,” a person aware of the matter said.

Under ordinary circumstances, civil aviation requirements (CAR) mandate that refund for flights cancelled by an airline must be done within seven days in case of credit card payments, and immediately in case of cash transactions. India went into lockdown late last month to limit the spread of the highly contagious Covid-19.

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