Air travel picks up, but so do passenger complaints. Refunds the biggest source of ire

Passenger complaints rose to a six-month high in September. Air India receives the most.

Published: Oct 15, 2020
Air Travel_SM Image: Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

Air passenger traffic may have jumped in September, going by the data shared by industry regulator DGCA. But then so have customer complaints, which rose to a six-month high in September.

More importantly, the incidence of complaints - measured for every 10,000 passengers - also increased after a dip in August.

Over 80 percent of the complaints were regarding refunds of tickets, an issue over which passengers continue to air their ire on social media. The issue continues to fester despite recent orders by the Supreme Court, and consequent notification from the DGCA.

"Yes, customers continue to be worried about refunds. Some airlines are yet to refund, and because of that travel agents haven't returned the money to customers," a senior official from the industry said.

At the same time, the official added, "conditions are easing. More and more airlines are beginning to refund, especially after the Supreme Court ruling."

State-owned Air India has the highest number of complaints, with an incidence of 10.3 per 10,000 passengers. In fact, the airline's numbers were much higher than all of its peers combined. In second was Trujet, with an incidence of 1.0 per 10,000 passengers.

The industry is hoping that the clarifications from the Apex Court and the industry regulator will remove the misgivings among customers, who have otherwise hesitated to travel. Apart from refunds, officials earlier said, customers had also stayed away because of varied quarantine rules in states.

But most states have now eased these conditions. For instance, on October 15, Maharashtra stopped the practice of quarantine stamping on arriving passengers at airports.

The numbers

Domestic air traffic jumped the most since the lockdown, with a month-on-month growth of 39 percent in September. Over 39 lakh people took to the air in September compared to 28.32 lakh in August. The growth rate in August was 34.4 percent.

At the same time, passenger complaints increased to 450 in September, from 310, a month earlier. This is the highest since March, when 467 complaints were registered with the airlines.

Over 81 percent of the complaints were on refunds, up from 67.4 percent in August. In July too, complaints on refunds were high, at 87 percent.

While the overall number of complaints are lower compared to the same months a year ago - when airlines were flying full schedule - the incidence has been higher during the lockdown period.

Domestic flights had resumed on May 25, with cap on capacity utilisation, which has been since raised to 65 percent.

The refund controversy

Since April, customers have been complaining about airlines refusing to refund money from cancelled tickets. Airlines had parked the refund in credit shells, which customers could use over the next few months - up to a year - but with certain conditions.

Credit shells helped airlines limit cash outflow at a time when there was nil business. But for customers, their money was locked up.

While the DGCA later came up with clarifications, confusion continued, especially for those who had booked tickets before March 24, but for travel during the lockdown.

The latest communication from the regulator provided for better clarity. Following the directive from Supreme Court, the DGCA categorised passengers in three categories -

1. Those who booked tickets between March 25 and May 24 for travelling within the same period, were to be given full refund.

2. For those who booked tickets prior to March 25 but to travel till May 24, airlines have to refund within 15 days. But if an airline is facing a financial crunch, a credit shell can be created, that can be used to book ticket by March 31, 2021. The ticket could be booked on any route.

3. For those who booked tickets anytime but for a journey post May 24, refunds will be done according to existing DGCA rules.

Industry executives said while IndiGo has taken the lead in refunding the tickets, other are doing the same. Some though, have been slower than others.

The hope is that with the clarifications, and with refunds beginning to reach customers, complaints will also come down from October on wards.

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