Death and taxes are inevitable: it has been like that for some time now. To that — in the name of privatization, liberalization and free trade — can be added the denial of refunds on domestic airline tickets in India. One can understand pirates in Somalia and pickpockets in buses, but this? The fact remains that airlines in India will, by hook and largely by crook, keep most if not all the money you paid them in case you don’t perform the journey contracted for some reason. All in the name of a level playing field. For themselves.
So there you are — flight missed or not undertaken for any of a variety of reasons. Bad weather, traffic jams, ill health, change in plans, mechanical problems en route, strikes, bandhs, chakka jams, roadblocks — the works. Too bad you are not entitled to any relaxation on the refund rules set by the airlines, you shall lose some or most of what you paid. This would be understandable to some extent if the airlines reciprocated. But when it is their turn, and the flight gets delayed or cancelled due to similar problems, the best you can hope for is a grudging refund. Which also usually takes forever and a month of Sundays added on. Or comes with lock-in conditions, usually compelling you to travel by the same airline within a limited period.
To try and bring in a real level playing field, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation issued a notification on 22 May. The notification, “Civil Aviation Requirements, Section 3 — Air Transport, Series ‘M’, Part II, Issue I”, was also posted on its website. This made it very clear that domestic airlines would:
a) Make refunds within seven days
b) Not force customers to leave money with the airline for future travel
c) Not charge more than the base fare for refunds
d) Not use the word “taxes” for anything other than the Rs225 collected by the Union government as passenger tax (this is to get rid of the obnoxious habit of clubbing all sorts of surcharges and presenting them as “taxes”)
e) To refund completely all taxes and surcharges paid by the passenger
The airlines are, of course, blithely ignoring this circular, or depending on the ignorance of airline customers, continuing to perpetuate their habit of hanging on to customers’ money.
In some cases, the refund exceeds the base fare, so the passenger actually ends up paying more for claiming a refund. And airlines continue with the tactic of hanging on to your money, forcing you to fly with them even when you don’t want to.
Is it only a question of “it is like this in India”? Not actually, if you look closely at the real monopoly — Indian Railways. Its refund rules are eminently fair, and driven by a sense of social responsibility as well as better yield and cash management. Cancellation two clear days before travel — minimal. Refund to credit card accounts — automatic, usually the same day. Cash refunds — across the counter. Allowance for force majeure issues — liberal.
And most of all, you get to escalate issues or disputes to senior management, instead of getting stuck with the inevitable parrot behind a call centre table, phone and computer.
Will the domestic airlines in India change their money gouging habits? You be the judge. Me, I’m increasingly enjoying AC first-class on trains of late. And my money comes back to me when I don’t travel, inevitably.
Veeresh Malik heads the Asia operations of Infonox, a Silicon Valley technology company. Comment at email@example.com