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Why India's air passengers are suffering more and complaining less

As the Modi government released its 2.0 version of AirSewa on November 20, there seemed to be more than just providing Indians with a “hassle-free air travel experience” on its mind. The web portal and mobile application, which was first launched in November 2016, aims to provide a “chatbot for travellers support, improved grievance management including social media grievances, real-time flight status and detailed flight schedule.” The renewed attempt to make things easy for the passenger seems to be dictated by deteriorating flying conditions amid an aviation boom across the country.  

In 2015-16, more than 11,600 passengers were denied boarding by India’s airlines. According to the country's Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR), a passenger is deemed to have been denied boarding when he arrives at the airport well within the prescribed time with a confirmed booking, but is refused a boarding pass. This happens when airlines overbook flights in the hope that some passengers fail to turn up for flights and their void tickets become an extra source of revenue. In 2017-18, the number of people denied boardings despite having confirmed bookings more than doubled to over 28,000. (See Graphic)

When it came to cancellations and delays, airlines and airports fared no better. In 2015-16, a little over 100,000 passengers were affected by flight cancellations. By 2017-18, this had more than doubled to almost 250,000. In 2016-17, almost 670,000 passengers were affected by flight delays. In 2017-18, the number of passengers affected by delays rose to more than 1.5 million. What perhaps makes this stupendous rise in suffering passengers more disconcerting is the fact that passenger traffic grew by just about 45 per cent during this period to 123 million. But the number of people denied boarding, along with cancellations and delays, rose 133 per cent.  Almost two out of every 100 passengers in India suffered on either of these counts in 2017-18. But curiously, the number of complaints registered actually declined during the period from almost 10,000 to 8,000.

What explains the fewer number of complaints in the face of rising misery of Indian air passengers? One reason seems to be airlines, forced by the Modi government’s policy of enhancing passenger compensation in July 2016, are paying more money to passengers than ever before. This is especially true for those who were denied boarding despite having confirmed tickets. In 2015-16, people who were denied boarding by airlines got Rs 3,250 on an average. In 2017-18, this compensation more than doubled to about Rs 8,700. According to India’s aviation rules, passengers are to be paid up to Rs 10,000 if the airlines arranged an alternate flight within 24 hours of the scheduled departure of the flight on which boarding was denied. This compensation goes up to Rs 20,000 if the alternate flight is arranged beyond 24 hours of the original departure. Little wonder that in 2016-17, the first year of the rules operation, people who were denied boarding ended up getting Rs 11,000 on average as compensation from airlines. While the compensation for those denied boarding has increased substantially, those affected by cancellations and delays haven’t been as lucky. A passenger affected by flight cancellations used to receive almost Rs 450 as compensation on an average in 2015-16. In 2017-18, that amount was reduced to almost Rs 200. Those affected by delays got Rs 80 on an average – almost the same as they did in 2015-16.

The low amount of compensation for delays and cancellations can partly be explained by the fact that planes are delayed for reasons not under their control. The CAR also provides adequate protection to airlines from passengers looking to get a hefty compensation instead of taking the next available flight out to their destinations. According to the rules, airlines would not be liable to pay any compensation in respect of cancellations and delays “clearly attributable to air traffic control (ATC), meteorological conditions, security risks, or any other causes that are beyond the control of the airline but which affect their ability to operate flights on schedule.”  

But are Indians complaining less and suffering more as compared to passengers of other nations across the world? Take the case of the US, the world’s biggest aviation market, where almost 742 million passengers flew domestically in 2017 – seven times more than India’s. The number of domestic airlines operating in the US is four times that of India’s. According to US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there were 8.1 million flight departures – 10 times more than India in 2017. But in the same year, the number of complaints against US domestic airlines was just about 3,300 more than India’s. Only one out of every 100,000 passenger had a formal complaint to make against US airlines. In India almost six out 100,000 raised a howl against airlines. While reasons may vary for passengers to complain, the common thread that binds Indian and American passengers is that both of them were most aggrieved with flight problems that involve cancellations, boarding issues and delays. What perhaps separates the two is that just about one in 10 American passengers was distraught with the airline’s customer service. Four in 10 Indians, meanwhile, complained about the way the country's airlines treat their passengers.