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Lockdown Blues | Flyers stumped by lack of clarity by airlines on bookings and refunds

With increasing murmurs about the nationwide lockdown getting extended, flyers are becoming increasingly edgy.

April 20, 2020 / 11:06 AM IST
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With his travel plans jeopardised following the COVID-19 outbreak, a distraught Pradeep Kumar had just two simple questions for the call centre employee of an airline.

"If I don't travel in the next one year, will you refund my ticket? Also, you say I will have to pay the difference in the fare. I agree, if the fare is higher, I will pay the difference. But if the fare is lower, then will you refund me the remaining amount?"

Both the questions evoked a similar answer from the airline's call centre employee - "I cannot predict such things....can you please mail us?"

Similar is the predicament of thousands of flyers, whose plans have gone awry as the nation went on a lockdown to contain the spread of the deadly COVID-19.

Kumar, a resident of Kottayam district in Kerala, had planned to fly to Abu Dhabi, along with his wife and son, and spend a fortnight with his daughter's family before returning home.

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But the flights - Air India Express and IndiGo - were cancelled as travel restrictions kicked in. While initially he was told that the tickets will be refunded, "their policy changed and I was told that my ticket fare will be saved for future travel. But then I travel seldom, and don't plan to fly again for over a year," says Kumar, who was hoping to celebrate Vishu, which falls on April 14, with his daughter.

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The lockdown effect

With increasing murmurs about the nationwide lockdown getting extended, flyers are becoming increasingly edgy, taking to social media platforms to enquire about flights booked for April 15 and later.

But instead of getting a direct answer, they are being asked to keep checking airline websites for flight status.

The airline answered:

Other airlines, including GoAir and SpiceJet, have also received similar queries. Some passengers also complained about their flights being cancelled. One passenger noted that even if airlines do operate flights, getting to airports in some of the cities, including in Mumbai, would be difficult.

Airlines, on the other hand, point out that they are merely following government orders.

Also Read: COVID-19 has triggered the early retirement of old planes  

"The government has said that the lockdown is till April 14. Accordingly, we need to plan our operations in advance," said a senior executive of a budget airline.

All the carriers, barring Air India, have been accepting bookings for domestic travel from April 15. Many of them have opened bookings for international travel from May 1.

To be sure, the government has said that a decision hasn't been taken on allowing airlines to start service from April 15.

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri himself clarified on Twitter: "News about the resumption of passenger flights in a staggered manner from April 15, is mere speculation. The correct position is spelt out in my tweet of 2nd April 2020," he had tweeted on April 5.

On April 2, he had said: "The current lockdown on both international and national passenger flights is till April 15. A decision to restart the flights after this period remains to be taken. If required, we will have to access the situation, on a case-by-case basis."

But then, as an executive from the airline said, "It is not as if we have been asked not to accept bookings."

So who it to be blamed for the uncertainty that clouds over air travel?

Yeshwant Shenoy, a lawyer and aviation safety activist, said that everyone has to share the blame.

"A lot has been written about booking and cancellations during these times. And customers planning to travel from April 15, have access to information and they know the ground situation. So it's not a smart thing to book at the moment," says Shenoy.

And not that airlines can't be blamed, adds the lawyer. "The airlines well know that none of the customers will take them to court for a Rs 5,000 or Rs 10,000-ticket, for cancelling a flight or rescheduling it," said Shenoy.

Now everyone's eyes and ears, including that of airlines and customers, are on the address by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will address the nation on April 14. "We will get more clarity after his address," is how an airline executive put it.

Follow our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak here

Prince Mathews Thomas
Prince Mathews Thomas heads the corporate bureau of Moneycontrol. He has been covering the business world for 16 years, having worked in The Hindu Business Line, Forbes India, Dow Jones Newswires, The Economic Times, Business Standard and The Week. A Chevening scholar, Prince has also authored The Consolidators, a book on second generation entrepreneurs.
first published: Apr 13, 2020 09:06 pm