The Supreme Court’s recent direction raising questions about the inability of the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to check the sharp increase in airfares has once again brought unfair practices of the aviation sector under scrutiny. It also highlighted the need to have an “effective regulator,” which protects consumer interest.

The Supreme Court has also directed the Federation of Indian Airlines (FIA) to file a detailed affidavit, setting forth the tariff structure, “which shall fairly explain all the components and also the total fare which is collected from the passengers on the basis of these components, to and fro tariff as well as the maximum and minimum fare in a journey.” The case came up before a Bench of Justices D.K. Jain and Madan B. Lokur, which rapped the DGCA, saying it could not wash its hand of the responsibility of regulating the airfare.

It is no secret that the airfares have risen phenomenally in the recent months by almost 30-60 per cent in some sectors, putting a question mark over the DGCA’s ability to protect passenger interest. In fact, a circular prohibiting all airlines from levying transaction fee to be paid by an airline to a travel agent for bookings was never implemented in letter and in spirit, and every time there is a hue and cry about airfares, the DGCA has been parroting that airfares were within the permissible band. There is hardly any data shared on how it arrived at the permissible limit.

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Interestingly, the DGCA has always said it has little or no role in monitoring the airfares but airlines are supposed to submit their tariff plans and the regulator has the powers to act as a watchdog — a role it has failed to perform. “The DGCA is supposed to be the watchdog, but it is not at all bothered about the passengers. Will they ever be refunded the extra money charged? Gullible passengers believe they have been made to pay a certain amount after a scrutiny by the government, but that is clearly not so,” the Supreme Court Bench observed.

The court also asked the DGCA to file a comprehensive affidavit, recording all instructions or orders passed on tariff fixing and collecting different charges from passengers. “The DGCA shall also clarify what other charges can be recovered from the passengers by airlines, in addition to the base fare, and whether the base fare also includes government levies and taxes,” the court said.

The circular issued by the DGCA directed domestic airlines to ensure that the fare remained within the band uploaded on the website of the airlines, and no upward charge is levied because of the continuing crisis in the sector or a surge in demand.

Interestingly, when SpiceJet announced its million ticket scheme at heavily discounted rates, the DGCA intervened to stop other airlines from following suit. It was doing so to protect the industry from bleeding, it claimed.

However, this kind of enthusiasm has rarely been displayed by the DGCA to protect the interests of the passengers who are being exorbitantly charged in recent months. The ball is now in the court of the Ministry of Civil Aviation to get the watchdog to do its job.