Flight disrupted? Know your rights

The turbulence in Indian aviation is throwing many flights off schedule. The recently-released Passenger Charter lays out the entitlements for impacted passengers

The Indian aviation sector — beset by high costs, cut-throat competition and shrinking profits — now seems caught in a perfect storm. Jet Airways is fighting to live another day; IndiGo is being hobbled by pilot shortages and SpiceJet has had to ground the beleaguered Boeing 737 Max 8 planes. For air passengers, all this has meant multiple flight cancellations over the past few weeks. Already, there was a big spike in flight cancellations in calendar 2018.

Data from aviation regulator DGCA show that compared with calendar 2017, the number of domestic air passengers affected by flight cancellations in calendar 2018 has shot up about 80 per cent to 3.08 lakh. Other flight disruptions are also on the rise. In 2018, the number of air passengers affected by flight delays rose 22 per cent to around 17 lakh. Also, those who had confirmed tickets but were denied boarding by airlines due to overbooking rose 1.5 per cent to 26,700 in 2018.

With the upheaval that Indian aviation is going through, the going is likely to get more difficult for passengers in 2019. Passengers affected by flight cancellations in January 2019 more than doubled Y-o-Y to around 38,000. That’s three in every 1,000 passengers being impacted. This could have increased in February and March 2019 with Jet’s woes and IndiGo’s pilot troubles worsening and SpiceJet having to keep its 12 Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft on the ground.

Anecdotes from friends, colleagues and relatives also attest that over the past year, many more have been impacted by flight disruptions than in the past. Is redress available to you if your flight is disrupted? Yes. Thankfully, last month, the Ministry of Civil Aviation came out with the much-awaited Passenger Charter. It has enhanced compensation available to passengers in some cases of flight disruptions. The Passenger Charter draws upon the rules mentioned in the Civil Aviation Requirements Section 3 Series M Part IV and lays out passenger rights in case of flight disruptions and other incidents. Here’s what you are entitled to.

Flight cancellation

A flight cancellation can be a real bummer and throw into disarray carefully laid-out plans. The rules say that airlines must inform you of flight cancellations at least two weeks before the scheduled time of departure, and arrange an alternative flight or ticket refund, as per your choice. If this does not happen, there are two scenarios. If you are informed of the flight cancellation less than two weeks before, but up to 24 hours of the scheduled departure time, the airline must offer you an alternative flight or refund the ticket, as acceptable to you. But you are not entitled to compensation.

The other scenario is about flight cancellations late in the day — when you are not informed about the cancellation up to 24 hours of the scheduled departure time. In this case, the airline has to offer you two choices. One, an alternative flight that is acceptable to you. If you don’t opt for this, the airline has to provide you the full refund of the air ticket and compensation. The compensation amount depends on the block time of the flight. Block time is the total time a flight takes from pushing back from the departure gate to arriving at the destination gate.

So, if the block time of the flight is up to one hour, you are entitled to compensation of ₹5,000 or the booked one-way basic fare plus airline fuel charge, whichever is less. If the block time is more than one hour but up to two hours, the airline has to give you compensation of ₹7,500 or the booked one-way basic fare plus airline fuel charge, whichever is less. And if the flight’s block time is more than two hours, the compensation is ₹10,000 or the booked one-way basic fare plus airline fuel charge, whichever is less.

If you have already reported for the original flight and are waiting for the alternative flight that you have accepted, the airline must provide meals and refreshments (free-of-charge) in relation to the waiting time.

In essence, if you have not been informed about the cancelled flight at least 24 hours in advance, and if you do not opt for an alternative flight in lieu of this cancelled flight, you can get a maximum compensation of ₹10,000 in addition to the full refund of the air ticket.

Say you are flying from Delhi to Chennai on March 20 at 10 a.m. The flying time (and thus the block time) of the flight is more than two hours. If this flight is cancelled and you have not been informed about it until 10.a.m on March 19, the airline can offer an alternative flight acceptable to you. If you do not opt for this flight, the airline has to give you compensation of ₹10,000 or the basic fare plus fuel charge, whichever is less, and the full ticket refund.

Make sure you provide adequate contact information (email id or a phone number) at the time of booking the ticket. If you do not, you will not be entitled to compensation on cancellation of the flight. But even in such cases, the airline has to refund the ticket fare or make alternative flight arrangement, as per your choice.

What if the flight cancellation is due to events of force majeure — that is, due to extraordinary circumstances beyond the control of the airline even if all reasonable measures had been taken? For instance, due to political instability, natural disasters, government regulation or order affecting the aircraft, strikes, factors attributable to air traffic control, security risks, etc. In such cases, while alternative flight or refund has to be offered, the airline does not have to pay financial compensation to passengers. For instance, it is likely that SpiceJet may not have to pay financial compensation to passengers for cancelling flights due to the grounding of its Boeing Max 8 aircraft on the regulator’s orders.

Denied boarding

Bags packed, tickets checked, you start early and reach the airport in time for your flight. To your dismay, the lady at the check-in counter apologises and says you can’t board the plane. On protesting that you have a confirmed ticket, you are told that the flight has been overbooked.

In industry lingo, you have just been ‘bumped off’. This practice of denied boarding is allowed by the rulebook. Overbooking — selling more seats than available — is a phenomenon prevalent in sectors with perishable seats, such as hotels, taxi operators, and, of course, airlines. It’s done so that seats don’t go empty. Thankfully, airlines have to compensate passengers who get ‘bumped off’.

According to the DGCA regulations, the airline has to first ask for volunteers to give up their seats to make them available for other booked passengers. In exchange, the airline may offer such volunteers benefits and facilities, at its discretion. But if the number of volunteers is inadequate and boarding is denied to passengers against their will, there are two scenarios.

One, the airline arranges to fly the ‘bumped off’ passenger on a flight scheduled to depart within one hour of the original scheduled departure time. In this case, the passenger is not entitled to compensation. Not fair, you may say, but that’s how it is.

The other scenario is when the airline fails to arrange for an alternative flight scheduled to depart within one hour of the original scheduled departure time. Here, the passenger who is denied boarding must be compensated. If the airline arranges an alternative flight that is scheduled to depart within 24 hours of the booked scheduled departure, the passenger is entitled to compensation that is 200 per cent of the booked one-way basic fare plus airline fuel charge, subject to a maximum of ₹10,000.

In case the airline arranges an alternative flight that is scheduled to depart more than 24 hours after the booked scheduled departure, the compensation is 400 per cent of the booked one-way basic fare plus airline fuel charge, subject to a maximum of ₹20,000. And in case the passenger who is denied boarding does not opt for the alternative flight that is later than one hour from the original departure, she must be given the refund of the full value of ticket. Also, she must be given compensation of 400 per cent of the booked one-way basic fare plus airline fuel charge, subject to a maximum of ₹20,000.

Flight delays

India is among the fastest growing aviation markets in the world. Most flights seem packed with passengers and airports, at least in major cities, are bursting at their seams. But the pressure is showing and both airlines and airports seem hard put to cope up with the rising numbers. The result: delays too are increasing and account for the maximum number of passengers affected by flight disruptions. If your flight is delayed, the redress depends on the extent of the delay. The rules are somewhat complicated with three scenarios and some categories within them.

One, you have checked in on time. But the airline expects a delay of two hours or more in case of flights having a block time of up to 2 ½ hrs, or a delay of three hours or more in case of flights with a block time of more than 2 ½ hrs and up to five hours, or a delay of four hours or more in flights not falling in the above two categories. In this case, the airline must offer you meals and refreshments (free of charge) in relation to the waiting time.

The next scenario is when your domestic flight is expected to be delayed by more than six hours. Here, the airline must communicate the rescheduled time to you more than 24 hours before the original departure time, and offer an alternative flight within six hours or a full ticket refund.

In the third scenario, there is a delay of more than 24 hours from the scheduled departure time or more than six hours delay for flights scheduled to depart between 20:00 and 03:00 hours (that is, between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m.). This is communicated more than 24 hours in advance. In this case, the airline has to provide the passenger free hotel accommodation.

In essence, depending on the extent of the flight delay, you are entitled to free-of-charge meals and refreshments or free hotel accommodation or the option of alternative flight/ticket refund. Note though that here too force majeure applies. So, if the delay is due to extraordinary circumstances beyond the control of the airline, it is not obliged to offer passengers the above benefits.

Foreign carriers

If the disruption is on a flight by a foreign carrier, the compensation paid to passengers will be determined by the regulations of the carrier’s country of origin or as per the DGCA’s rules. While not explicitly mentioned, presumably, the rules more beneficial to passengers should apply in such cases.

Mode and time

The compensation in the case of flight disruptions shall be paid by the airlines in cash, by bank transfer or with the signed agreement of the passenger, in the form of travel vouchers. The ticket refund has to be made immediately by the airline, if the payment was made by cash. If it was made by credit card, it must be made within seven days. And if the payment was made through the travel agent, the amount will be routed through the travel agent.

Information, redressal and escalation

According to the Passenger Charter, a clearly legible notice has to be displayed at the check-in with the following text, ‘If you are denied boarding or if your flight is cancelled or delayed, ask at the check-in counter or boarding gate for the text stating your rights, particularly with regard to compensation and assistance.’ If you are denied boarding or a flight is cancelled, the operating carrier must provide you with a written notice setting out the rules for compensation and assistance. The contact details of the escalation mechanism shall also be given to you in written form. The copy of the Passenger Charter is also to be given along with your ticket, with in-flight magazines and at airports. Given that it’s only a few days since the Passenger Charter was released, not all these changes may have been implemented by airlines just yet. But passengers are within their rights to ask for these.

According to the DGCA rules, airlines and relevant third-parties such as travel agents should inform passengers of their rights on their websites. Airline counters at airports should disseminate reasons for cancellation and delays to affected passengers and attend to their grievances. Every airline has to appoint a nodal officer and appellate authority to settle passenger grievances in a stipulated time frame. The details of these officers should be prominently displayed on the airlines’ websites. The internal grievance mechanism of airlines should have a provision for on-line complaint handling, and all complaints registered shall be issued a unique reference number.

You can lodge and claim compensation at help desks placed at arrival and departure desks or do so electronically. If you are not paid the compensation and/or facilities laid down by the regulator in case of cancellation, denied boarding or long delay, you can complain directly to the airline. If you are not satisfied with the resolution of the airline, you can file the grievance on the Air Sewa App or Air Sewa portal. Air Sewa is an air travel information and grievance redressal mechanism set up by the Ministry of Civil Aviation. Finally, if you are not satisfied with the resolution of the grievance by the airline and/or Air Sewa, you can complain to any statutory body/court set up under relevant laws.

Cancellation charges – the much-needed relief

One of the biggest grouses air passengers have is about the high penalty charges that airlines levy on cancellation of tickets. In many cases in the past, the passenger got back nothing on cancellation. The Passenger Charter provides some much-needed relief on this pain point. It says that if you cancel the ticket, airlines must refund all statutory taxes, user development fee and passenger service fee to you. This will be applicable for all types of fares, including promos/special fares and where the basic fare is non-refundable. Also, you are not liable to pay any additional charge to process the refund.

Another major passenger-friendly provision is that you can cancel or amend your ticket without any additional charges within 24 hours of booking the ticket. But this facility is available up to seven days prior to the specified flight departure on the first leg.

Next, if you point out a legitimate correction of your name within 24 hours of booking, the airline shall not levy any charge to incorporate the correction. There is no time bar mentioned against this facility.

The airline must clearly indicate the amount of refund money admissible on cancellation of ticket. The amount and its break-up must be indicated on the ticket itself or through a separate form used for the purpose and the policy of refund shall also be displayed by the airlines on their websites.

In the past, in some cases, airlines compulsorily kept the refund amount in a credit shell to be used by the passenger for bookings in the future. The Passenger Charter says that the option of holding the refund amount in credit shell by the airlines is the passenger’s prerogative and cannot be a default practice.

If the airline is a foreign carrier operating to/from India, you shall get your ticket refund in accordance with regulations of the airline’s country of origin.

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