Ad-hoc means of redressing passenger concerns is not in keeping with India’s ambitions on the aviation front (Photo: iStock)
Ad-hoc means of redressing passenger concerns is not in keeping with India’s ambitions on the aviation front (Photo: iStock)

Why flyers’ rights are up in the air

  • Consumer-friendly regulations have clearly not kept pace with the rapid rise of India’s aviation market
  • Be it the passenger charter, a recent guideline governing the right to quality service, or the online customer grievance portal AirSewa, both fail to effectively address consumer concerns

NEW DELHI : During the course of the frenetic Diwali weekend, when inter-city travel volumes usually spike, a 30-year-old New Delhi-based media professional got a taste of what is increasingly becoming common as more Indians take to air travel: poor service or an inexplicable delay on a scheduled flight.

The media professional’s early morning IndiGo flight from Kolkata to Delhi was supposed to land at 9am, just in time for an important meeting. However, a few days before the scheduled travel date, IndiGo informed the passenger that his flight’s departure had been pushed to 11.30am “due to operational reasons" and is now slated to land in Delhi only by 2pm. When contacted for an explanation about the abrupt change in flight schedule, an IndiGo spokesperson suggested referring to the passenger charter.

And within that esoteric document lies the grain of a gathering tiff between air passengers and flight operators. Any right to quality of service that an Indian air passenger may have was publicly enunciated for the first time only this year, with the release of a passenger charter in February 2019. According to the document, airline responsibility kicks in only in case of a six-hour+ delay.

Such provisions, as well as several remaining gaps in mandated systems of remedy, are only going to be tested more and more, as air passenger ridership numbers rise rapidly. India has not only held the crown as the fastest-growing aviation market in the world for much of the past 5 years, but air passenger numbers are also set to dramatically rise sixfold, settling at around 1.1 billion passengers per year, by 2040, according to a report by consultancy group KPMG and Ficci.

Rising complaints

Consumer-friendly regulations and mandatory minimum guarantees of service have clearly not kept pace with the rapid rise of India’s aviation market. In September, for example, in the middle of the Mumbai deluge, passengers at the city’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA) had to endure a torrid time as they were made to wait for long hours at the airport, with several even stranded inside airplanes for six to seven hours as the pouring rain choked airport operations.

This applies to all airlines. During September 2019, 701 passenger-related complaints had been received by scheduled domestic airlines, as compared to 669 complaints received in September 2018, according to Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) data. A breakup of the complaints revealed that 47.8% of passengers had an issue with flight problems; 21% with baggage issues; and 20.1% due to customer services (see graphic).

Learning to fly
Learning to fly

With the rise in the number of air passengers, the overall cancellation rate of scheduled domestic airlines has also shot up. For instance, during September 2019, cancellations stood at 1.37%, up from 1.07% during the same period of the previous year.

Of course, not all air passengers are aware of their rights and many don’t register complaints.

The Indian flyer

The Indian flyer is extremely discerning, and very aware of his travel needs, said Mark Martin, chief executive officer of Dubai-based Martin Consulting LLC, an aviation consultancy. “But, if she doesn’t report on time, she’s pulled up. She’s given arbitrary answers while seeking reasons for flight delays and cancellations," Martin said.

The widely held perception is that an air traveller’s communication with an airline is often a monologue and not a dialogue. “Do I have a right to question? Do I get to ask if the pilot is fine? Do I get to demand a fair amount as compensation in case of lost luggage? Pretty much everything is in the grey area when it comes to passenger rights," Martin said. “Do we have a traveller dispute tribunal in the country? Why does every traveller dispute have to go only to the high courts and the Supreme Court?" he added.

And that dead end in terms of remedy is beginning to loom large even for those taking trips abroad, with Indians increasingly travelling in larger numbers on international routes. Take the case of a Mumbai-based homemaker in her early 50s, who chose not to be named since the matter is sub judice, who had to undergo a 48-hour-long ordeal while flying back home after visiting her son in Baltimore, US. Her original flight was delayed, then the alternate flight was delayed, and then a code-share flight finally took her to Frankfurt where she was denied a boarding pass for her onward journey to Mumbai.

Being stranded in an airport was made worse by the fact that she neither had a working phone nor was she carrying enough money. Six years later, she is still fighting a court case seeking compensation for the mistreatment. Many others, who face similar situations, continue to fight their cases in different courts across the country.

That has been the broad trend in most other parts of the world too, with budget airlines soaking up a newly emerging class of flyers, even as they try every trick in the book to keep costs low. But in most other countries, regulations or a legal remedy kicks in for the passenger at some point.

In the US, for example, after a man was forcibly ejected off an overbooked United Airlines flight last year through a process called “involuntary deboarding", a video of him being dragged out of the plane went viral and resulted in a change in regulations. What will it take in India to nudge the aviation sector toward consumer-friendly service guarantees?

Travel agent’s tale

Most complaints against commercial airlines are on the issue of cancellations or rescheduling, says a senior official at a prominent online travel website, who requested anonymity. “In most cases, the cancellation and re-scheduling amount charged by airlines are almost the price of the ticket and passengers are rightfully upset when airlines cancel flights at the last moment, offer refund, but leave them with no options but to book an expensive ticket via another airline," the official said.

“On international travel, baggage loss, delay in the arrival of baggage at the destination, or baggage left behind at layover place are the big passenger concerns. And, the kind of compensation for this is very marginal from the airlines," the person said, adding that his company receives several such complaints regularly. “In such case, we (online travel agents) as an intermediary can’t do much. Many people write to the ministry (Ministry of Civil Aviation), DGCA, or tweet to ministers to address their issues," the person added.

But that kind of rudimentary, ad-hoc means of redressal is not in keeping with the country’s ambitions on the aviation front. India is expected to have 190-200 operational airports by 2040, with Delhi and Mumbai having three airports each, the KPMG-Ficci report quoted earlier predicts. The country may invest up to $2 billion in the next 20 years developing several existing low-traffic airports.

The Indian air passenger charter is, basically, an attempt by the government to inch our way towards the international standard, said Nitin Sarin, managing partner of Sarin & Co, an expert in aviation law. “But we are still very far behind," he added.

Passenger Rights Charter

As mentioned earlier, Indian consumers finally have a much-awaited passenger charter. To help resolve passenger complaints, the government also introduced an online customer grievance portal, AirSewa, which sought to reset the terms of service in favour of the customer. The charter says an airline cannot charge an extra fee for ticket cancellation or modification if it is done within 24 hours of a booking as long as the travel date is at least a week away.

It also mandates carriers to compensate flyers and refund the full fare if they cannot provide another flight that is acceptable to the passenger when a flight gets cancelled. The compensation could go up to 10,000 if the travel time is more than two hours. Passengers must also be offered free hotel stay if night flights are delayed by more than six hours. The charter also entitles passengers to claim a compensation of up to 20,000 in case of loss of luggage.

A passenger who has any grievance can approach the airline directly for compensation. If the airline refuses to comply, the passenger can then lodge a complaint on the AirSewa app or portal, which is a grievance redressal system initiated by the civil aviation ministry. The compensation paid by the airlines is typically in the form of cash, bank transfer, or travel vouchers.

According to the charter, in the case of foreign carriers, the amount of compensation paid to the passengers shall be as contained in the regulations of their country of origin.

“The biggest distinction (in the passenger charter) is between international travel and domestic travel. International travel is protected by various conventions that are in place particularly to determine liability, like the Montreal Convention. What the government basically did was they applied similar rules for domestic travel," said Nitin Sarin.

Martin Consulting’s chief executive Mark Martin, quoted earlier, adds that AirSewa is not punitive in nature and there is no tribunal overseeing AirSewa, which dilutes the effectiveness of the charter.

In conclusion

As a result, in most cases, passenger rights remain only on paper, said Jehangir Gai, a Mumbai-based consumer activist and lawyer. “There are so many cases where people with confirmed air tickets are denied boarding. The biggest problem is with cancellation of flights and refusal by airlines to accommodate passengers on another flight or refusing to provide accommodation and other amenities," Gai said.

Fighting a case against an airline in India is a tedious process with judgements taking at least three to five years to be delivered, Gai said. “Unfortunately, many a time, judges are not very perceptive to ground realities. So, often one’s expenditure to fight such a case is more than the possible compensation. There is absolutely no incentive to fight the case," Gai added.

He cites the case of a professor at a management school near Mumbai who was awarded 4,000 as compensation, which included the ticket price, after fighting a battle against an airline in a lower court for four years. “There is a total apathy towards the consumer. And the government doesn’t care. It is the consumer that suffers at the end (when something goes wrong)," Gai said.

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