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After over 60 days of nationwide lockdown, air travel has finally resumed from most states in the country. But the decision to restart flights came after a considerable amount of back and forth, leaving passengers in a lurch. When the civil aviation ministry, on Wednesday, announced the resumption of air travel from 25 May, online travel agents witnessed a flood of bookings. Most airlines which had earlier opened for bookings starting 1 June, started accepting new bookings from 25 May, assuming all states would play ball.

According to data shared by EaseMyTrip.com, an online travel booking portal, 35.51% of the total bookings on its platform came for travel to or from Delhi. Another 16.81% bookings were made for travel to or from Mumbai, 14.45% to or from Chennai and 14.45% to or from Kolkata. But a while after the announcement, a few states including Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu said they weren’t prepared to open up yet.

Sneha Maloo, a 30-year-old brand consultant, is among the many who have left their home towns to live and work in Mumbai. After having spent around two months by herself in Mumbai during the lockdown, she was restless to go back to her hometown, Kolkata. When the government made the announcement allowing airlines to take to the skies from 25 May, Maloo went ahead and booked her ticket right away. While having a ticket home filled her with the excitement and anticipation of being with her family, the poor coordination between the centre and the state left her frustrated.

To begin with, Maharasthra government asked for more time to resume flights and so did West Bengal, which is reeling from the double whammy of cyclone Amphan and the pandemic. "My entire weekend was a washout because the news kept me on tenterhooks. There was no clarity with states asking for more time. Ultimately I just decided to cancel my flight instead," said Maloo. The wait and the frustration has left Maloo with a bad taste in her mouth and she says she will now wait for airlines to resume fully and wait for airports to be functional before she books a flight again. Cancelling her ticket also meant she had to shell out cancellation charges.

After a weekend full of negotiations, the official announcement on Sunday said that some states such as Maharashtra would operate only a select number of flights (25 arrivals and 25 departures), giving preference to passengers who are facing an emergency. This means a number of passengers who had booked their tickets hoping all flights would resume are now in a fix. The first flight after resumption, which was scheduled to leave Bengaluru on 25 May at 12:40 am for Delhi, was cancelled too.

“The whole situation is messy and there are people who bought tickets for as much as 34,000 for a Delhi-Mumbai round trip. Since there was no immediate cap on fares, some airlines took advantage of the situation. And now Maharashtra is not allowing more than 25 flights so what happens to people who booked such expensive tickets? There is also no cap on convenience and other fees. Passengers are being exploited due to lack of clarity," said Sudhakar Reddy, president, Air Passengers’ Association of India (APAI). There is absolutely no clarity on whether the passengers will get cash refunds or will have to settle for credit shells in case their flight doesn’t operate. Spicejet and GoAir did not respond to queries sent by Mint.

If you’re displaced due to the lockdown or need to travel for other reasons, here are five things you must keep in mind.

CANCELLATION AND REFUND

The cancellation and refund policy varies from airline to airline and given the current situation, it’s very important to understand the terms and conditions. If you end up cancelling your flight due to the looming uncertainty, you could lose over 50% of the ticket cost. Akanksha Anshu, co-founder and managing director, Refundme.in, a company providing services for air passengers to claim compensation, said the ministry of civil aviation has come out with guidelines on how to travel but there are no guidelines about refunds in case of cancellation of flights. “The standard guidelines with respect to cancellation of tickets under normal circumstances will apply. In the past, airlines have issued credit shells or the option to reschedule the flight to a later date," said Anshu. “As of now we see that most tickets bought through online travel agents for 25 May and 26 May are non-refundable," she added. It’s advisable to check the cancellation policy with your airline and travel only if you are okay with rescheduling your flight or settling with credit shells.

CREDIT SHELL T&Cs

Ever since the lockdown began, there have been multiple instances of airlines taking in bookings despite the ministry’s advice to refrain from doing so. Passengers who made bookings are now stuck with credit shells or the option to reschedule because air travel was suspended. You may think credit shells are as good as a cash refund but they comes with a host of terms and conditions. “Credit shells typically have tenure of one year, after which they expire. Also, you can’t change the sector (the city of departure and arrival) and the name of the passenger who had originally booked the ticket," said Nishant Pitti, co-founder and chief executive officer, EaseMyTrip. Reddy said accepting a credit shell is as good as donating money to the airlines. “What is the use of credit shells? There are so many conditions attached to it. Given the pandemic situation, you may not want to travel at all for a while," he added. Also note that even if you book a ticket in the future using the credit shells, you will have to pay the difference in fares. In case the fare for the new ticket is lower, you will not get any refund.

COST OF QUARANTINE

If you do end up getting on a flight, take note of the various guidelines on quarantining after travel. Almost every state has released guidelines on what passengers will have to do on arrival. While some states such as Rajasthan and Odisha have prescribed mandatory home quarantine for 14 days, others such as Uttrakhand have mandated institutional quarantine on payment basis. Karnataka, on the other hand, is following a combination of home and institutional quarantine. Other than this, most states have mandated covid-19 tests on arrival. Note that the cost of institutional quarantine too could burn a hole in your pocket. “Try and weigh the options. Before planning the trip, take the cost of quarantine into consideration," said Anshu.

TRAVEL INSURANCE

You may think travel insurance will come handy if your flight gets cancelled but understand that the cover will kick-in only if the airline doesn’t give you credit shells or the option to reschedule. “We are selling travel insurance policies but if there’s a clear advisory that flights won’t operate, then the claim is not honoured. If there’s no advisory and the flight also doesn’t refund in some form, the claim will be honoured," said Biresh Giri, appointed actuary and chief risk officer, ACKO General Insurance. You could make a claim in case you miss a subsequent flight due to cancellation or delay of the previous flight. However, Giri said Force Majeure could also come into effect if the claim incidence is 30-40% of the total policies bought. In case that happens, insurers could deny the claims arising out of flight cancellations.

BOOK DIRECTLY FROM THE AIRLINE

With so much uncertainty around flight operations, if you still wish to go ahead and book tickets, it’s advisable to book directly from the airline's app or website. Anshu said this could help you get your money back in case the airline offers a cash refund. “Some OTAs take cash refunds from the airline and issue credit shells which could become a problem," she said.

As lockdown eases and states negotiate their stance on air travel, tread carefully and assess the pros and cons before you book a flight ticket. While you might want to fly home as soon as possible, or have something important lined up, keep in mind that there are still risks involved, for both your health and your pocket.

Deepti Bhaskaran contributed to the story

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