'Consumer is king' — the adage holds true all the more in today's era of abundance. And yet, in India, this does not seem to apply where consumer rights redressal are concerned. The situation is uniformly bad across sectors, but of late, aviation sector appears to be winning this race to the bottom.
Complaints about sudden cancellation of flights or change in schedules without adequate notice, are on the rise. Harried passengers are sometimes forced to cancel their tickets or alter travel plans.
Advocate Shashi Shankar, who has been handling consumer cases since 2001, says majority of the citizens are not aware of their rights and the country lacks adequate number of consumer courts. This is evident from the fact that there were only 10 such courts in Delhi in 2019. In the last 19 years, this number has risen by just one.
"Consumer courts are now overburdened. A lot of improvement is needed. Airlines can’t take the additional load and upgradation is the need of the hour," he said.
According to Mark Martin, aviation expert and founder of Martin Consulting, structural changes are needed to fix the system.
"India is the only country in the world which does not have a mature and formal air traveller dispute tribunal. All matters need to be referred to the consumer court. Even China has a way to address such complaints," he said.
The below tweet shows how a passenger had to face inconvenience when the flight operator changed the itinerary.
Some more follow.
Some experts feel the root of the problem lies in the limited choices available for fliers because of the problems in the aviation sector. In the last seven years, two airlines—Kingfisher and Jet—have gone under.
So, what is the way out of this situation?
The chances of entry of a new domestic airline are next to none. Also, there are limits to which airlines can expand their fleet given the weak financials of most carriers.
But others like Jitender Bhargava, former ED, Air India, feel that addition of a new airline is not the solution.
"Post-Jet's grounding, the other airlines have beefed up their fleet size and it has been augmented to the current demand. I also expect that the number of airlines currently operating will be able to provide services as they had placed orders when growth was in double digits. From a consumer point of view, well, the DGCA rules are there to protect them and the onus has to be on the airline if it fails to adhere to them. Then, the DGCA should come into the picture," he told Moneycontrol.
Is there any scope for improvement or will passengers have to bear with the fact that the country does not have the structure in place to ensure rights of passengers?
Progressive forward looking policy is the need of the hour, Martin feels.
The Ministry of Civil Aviation had launched AirSewa web portal and mobile app in November 2016 to address issues like flight delays, problem in refunds, long queues, inadequate facilities at airports and complaints of lost baggage.
Martin rued that AirSewa has achieved nothing significant, and DGCA should assume a more mature role by ‘policying’ and not ‘policing’.
"When it comes to rebooking in the event of a schedule change, it is the responsiblity of the airline to make that service with no cost; Air India does that seamlessly. Other private airlines do need to set in place some effective system that works best both for the airline and the traveller," he said.
Bottomline, Martin said, is that we don’t have a rederessal forum.
With the government positioning the aviation sector as the vehicle to transform the lives of the politically aware and financially robust middle-class citizens, what does the future hold?
"The period 2008-09 was a glistening period for the aviation sector. Sadly, 2020 doesn't look too good. Import duty on jet fuel has not been rationalised and operating costs are back-breaking," Martin said.
With the government trying to make the aviation sector the cornerstone of its plans to uplift the travelling profile of the common man with a scheme like Udan, it seems that the airlines have become entangled in the web of revenue sapping operational expenditure and upkeep of standards.
Martin, having seen the industry evolve, pins the blame on the lack of will shown by governments over the years in developing an atmosphere conducive for the growth of the sector.
"The decision to levy 18 percent GST on MRO services is not helping the cause of airlines. Every engine in the aircraft is repaired outside India. Air India has the potential to be a profitable MRO but its future is up in the air. So, as far as I can see, things are not looking up," Martin lamented.
With Railways also looking to increase fares and good ol' Rajdhani train losing its charm over the years, the idea of affordable air travel and lack of effective redressal policies may continue to be stashed away in distant thoughts.
Will the flyer continue to be short-changed? The answer to it can be wrapped in a blanket of hope because of the rise of a burgeoning class of consumers aware of their rights. But as things stand, their hopes may just get dashed by a massive wall built on an edifice of apathy towards consumers and a creaky infrastructure.