Corona fallout: Air travellers pay through their nose for cancellations and rescheduling flights

Passengers have complained that the airlines are not being responsive enough to help them change plans. (Representative image)

By Anwesha Ganguly

Despite the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) last week asking airlines to support passengers by waiving cancellation and rescheduling fees, airlines are continuing to charge the same. Disgruntled customers have taken to social media to vent their ire against the companies’ reluctance to refund fares as cancellations and booking changes continued to rise. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has disrupted plans during the upcoming peak vacation season.

India's largest airline by market share, IndiGo, has seen a 500% increase in queries, a spokesperson told FE. The airline increased its working days to six, and diverted resources from other departments to resolve customer queries. Most airlines have said they have relaxed rescheduling charges, but customers are not satisfied. Passengers have complained that the airlines are not being responsive enough to help them change plans.

Nehaal Agarwal, manager at a real estate firm, planned to travel to the Andamans late this month, but the Andaman & Nicobar administration has shut tourist attractions and activities till March 26. "I have my travel dates from March 25 to April 4. A local from there told me the lock-down may be extended till April 15. I booked with IndiGo and SpiceJet. But SpiceJet is allowing booking changes only once. I requested an open ticket so they do not have to refund my money, and I can travel with them anytime in the next few months. But they simply stopped replying," Agarwal said, adding that he cannot cancel plans as he will have to pay the fee. Typically, airlines charge up to 70% of the ticket fare as cancellation fees. While India's second-largest carrier, SpiceJet, has announced a one-time rescheduling waiver on bookings for travel till April 30, cancellation charges still apply.

State-owned Air India also allowed a one-time waiver on a change to "postpone any international or domestic booking made to or from the areas with a risk of exposure," according to its website. However, the debt-laden airline is yet to decide on a waiver for cancellations, a senior official said. Some passengers are yet to hear from it regarding cancelled flights. "My flight from Milan to New Delhi for April 12 has been cancelled by the airline. However, I have not received any communication yet regarding the refund," said a corporate lawyer.

The number Covid-19 cases are rising by the, both globally and in India. Students are particularly facing the brunt of uncertainty arising from the partial lockdowns. "I was travelling to Mumbai for the entrance exam of Tata Institute of Medical Sciences. Now, it stands deferred until further notice. I spent Rs 7,458 on round-trip tickets from Vistara and AirAsia, and got refunded Rs 152 on cancellation," a Delhi-based student said. Another college student in Chennai wanted to advance his travel date as classes were cancelled and students were being sent home within two days. "I have booked a ticket for travel on March 28. Now, I have no clarity on whether charges will apply if I advance that booking," he said.

With little visibility on when the situation with Covid-19 will improve, passengers are looking for open tickets and charge-free cancellations. "This policy is not going to help passengers as there is no clarity on when the situation with the coronavirus will improve," wrote one flustered customer in response to GoAir's social media post promoting their "zero rescheduling fee."

But airlines, reeling from the financial consequences of the massive disruptions, are reluctant to issue blanket refunds. "In common with other low-cost carriers' practice, for domestic flights, which we expect to operate (and therefore incur significant costs), we are allowing free changes for all. Total refunds are being given only for special cases. We continue to review our policies on a daily basis, given the extraordinary circumstances," the IndiGo spokesperson told FE.