Coronavirus fear: Airlines, travel firms grapple with cancellation requests

With the rapidly expanding outbreak up-ending travel across the globe, many airlines are waiving the fees typically charged to change or cancel a ticket
Visiting California was on Amrita’s list for 2020. Now, however, she has second thoughts about the earlier much-awaited travel, which was due to start on March 21. 

“I am worried about being quarantined and stuck when I am there. Also, I don’t want to be 14 days off work after I return,” says the 29-year-old, who works for a multinational fashion outlet.

However, cancelling the ticket she booked on major Gulf carrier Etihad Airways would cost Amrita almost Rs 20,000. She does, though, have an option of rescheduling the flight, free of charge.

The conundrum—to travel or not—is a common one as the virus spreads globally. Those with reservations face potentially steep losses for cancelling; those contemplating trips must weigh the risk of getting sick or being quarantined. 

With the rapidly expanding outbreak up-ending travel across the globe, many airlines are waiving the fees typically charged to change or cancel a ticket. They and travel agents are reworking schedules, following the Indian government’s decision to suspend visas and US President Donald Trump's decision to stop all flights between Europe and America. 


“The situation remains dynamic, making it hard to quantify the actual impact on our business and industry at large,” says Rajesh Magow, chief executive at online travel major MakeMyTrip.

 On Wednesday night, the central government suspended all existing visas for foreign nationals till April 15. And, asked Indians to avoid international travel — else, they could be quarantined for 14 days on return. Executives of airlines and travel firms say they had calls from anxious customers and deliberated on next steps with their head offices, as the new restrictions further wipe travel demand. 

“We expect nil international travel in March and April. Customers cancelling could expect a refund of 
50-90 per cent, depending on booking conditions,” said Rakshit Desai, managing director at FCM Travels, a tour operator. 

The large number of queries to its call centres have forced the largest Indian airline, IndiGo, to ask customers to skip phone lines and directly do it from their website. “It’s free and hassle-free,” says its promo. 

Major online travel portal said it had launched a Trip Protection Plan, where customers can get refunds if they want to cancel the travel plan. “We have received close to 35 per cent cancellation queries from those (earlier) planning trips to foreign destinations.  In case our travellers want to cancel or delay their reservations, we are advising to postpone the travel dates and book for alternate ones,” said Sabina Chopra, co-founder and operations head at Yatra.

Foreign airlines had been cancelling their India flights as the virus slowly spread across the world, inviting new travel sanctions from authorities daily. 

According to Indian government data, foreign and Indian carriers had together pulled out around 250 flights till Tuesday.

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific  said it had rationalised  flights out of India and would be operating a total of eight flights from Delhi and Mumbai until April 30. 

“We will have to combine flights or operate smaller capacity aircraft to India, depending upon loads,” said a senior executive of a West Asian airline. Typically, flight loads on outbound flights  in March comprise non-resident Indians and foreign tourists returning from India. 

This season also sees a lot of traffic from West Asia to India, especially to Kerala, as schools in the region close for a spring break, the executive said. 

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