Airlines and the issues pertaining to them come under purview of Director General of Civil Aviation (“DGCA”). DGCA is the regulatory body in the field of Civil Aviation primarily dealing with safety issues and is responsible for regulation of air transport services to/from/within India and for enforcement of civil air regulations, air safety and airworthiness standards. Recently, due to outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic crisis, the international air traffic and the air travel got affected which led to confusion and chaos among the passengers. The airlines declined any refund to passengers during the COVID-19 crisis, which necessitated the DGCA to issue certain regulations.
The issue of refund of tickets by airlines had been a major source of grievance amongst airline passengers in past which necessitated for bringing into place certain regulations. The government had the onus to consider these concerns and thus in public interest, the Civil Aviation Requirement, Section 3, Series M, Part II, Issue I dated 22 May, 2008 (“CAR”) which deals with Refund of Airline Tickets to Passengers of Public Transport Undertakings was issued by DGCA. CAR was issued as per Rule 133A of the Aircraft Ruled and Ministry of Civil Aviation Order Non-AV 13030/105/2007 DT dated 12 May 2008. The CAR is in force and was lastly amended on 27 February, 2019.
This CAR prescribes minimum requirements for refund of ticket purchased by passengers with respect to air transport undertakings. As per the CAR in case of credit card payments, refund shall be made by the airlines within seven days of the cancellation to the account of credit cardholder and in case of cash transactions, refund shall be made immediately by the airlines office from where the ticket was purchased and in case of purchase of ticket through travel agent/portal, onus of refund shall lie with the airlines as agents are their appointed representatives and the airlines shall ensure that the refund process is completed within 30 working days. Furthermore, as per CAR, the option of holding the refund amount in credit shell by the airlines shall be the prerogative of the passenger and not a default practice of the airline.
The Ministry of Civil Aviation in February 2019 had also released a booklet i.e. Passenger Charter which states in brief the rights of air passengers when they travel with scheduled commercial airlines in India. The Passenger Charter dealt with topics like flight delay, flight cancellation, boarding denied due to over bookings, flight diversion, medical emergency, lost, delayed or damaged baggage, force majeure, etc. It is only time which can tell whether the Passenger Charter was effective for the passengers to enforce their rights or was merely a piece of paper.
In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as pandemic and on 24 March, 2020 the Government of India ordered a nationwide lockdown for 21 days. On 23 March, 2020 the Ministry of Civil Aviation suspended all the Scheduled domestic flights (except all-cargo flights) by any aircraft operator holding an air operator certificate issued by DGCA till 31 March, 2020. Thereafter on 27 March, 2020, DGCA extended the suspension of Domestic flights till 14th April 2020. Thereafter on 14 April, 2020 the Ministry of Civil Aviation extended the suspension of Domestic flights till 3 May, 2020.
On 16 April, 2020, the Ministry of Civil Aviation vide Office Memorandum, directed all the Airlines to refund the full amount collected for the tickets booked during first lockdown period for travel during the same period i.e. from 25 March, 2020 to 14 April, 2020 for the domestic and international travel and refund is sought by the passenger against the booking being cancelled. Furthermore the Office Memorandum further directed that for a ticket booked during the first lockdown period and the airline has received the payment for booking of air ticket during first lockdown period i.e. from 25 March, 2020 to 14 April, 2020 for travel during the second lockdown period i.e. from 15 April, 2020 to 3 May, 2020 for both domestic and international air travel and the passenger seeks refund on cancellation of the ticket, the Airline shall refund the full amount collected without levy of cancellation charge and the refund shall be made within a period of three weeks from the date of request of cancellation.
The said Office Memorandum directs the airlines to refund only those tickets that were booked during the lockdown period and does not talk about the passengers who had booked tickets before the flights were cancelled or suspended due to COVID-19 crisis. Furthermore, the said Office Memorandum allows the airlines a time period for refund and that also starting after receiving a passenger’s request for a refund. It is pertinent to note that the said Office Memorandum is not in consonance with the CAR.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, several Airlines instead of providing the full refund of the amount collected for the tickets due to cancellation, started providing a Credit Shell valid upto a certain period. In certain cases, refunds were initiated for only those bookings that fall under the categories as stated in the said Office Memorandum. Whereas the passengers were not given the prerogative for holding the refund amount in credit shell by the airlines as was expected by airlines following the CAR. Thus, several passengers were denied their refunds.
Recently in April 2020, an NGO named Pravasi legal Cell has filed a writ petition before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India against the Ministry of Civil Aviation and DGCA thereby referring to Office Memorandum of 16 April, 2020, of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and submitted that “the airlines instead of providing the full refund of the amount collected for the tickets due to cancellation, are providing a credit shell, valid upto one year, which is clear in violation of the Civil Aviation Requirement of May 2008 issued by the DGCA which clearly states that ‘the option of holding the refund amount in credit shell by the airlines shall be the prerogative of the passenger and not a default practice of the airline.” The said matter is presently pending adjudication before the Apex Court and it will be noteworthy to understand and determine the judgment that follows it.
The article represents the personal views of the author.