Travellers forced to cancel flights after the government’s advisory against non-essential travel amid COVID-19 , have been left in the lurch as most airlines have offered full refund only for travel to countries for which there is an outright ban.
In many cases while airlines have waived re-booking fees, travel agents and aggregators have either failed to pass on the benefit to passengers or such travellers are forced to reschedule flights at a higher price.
On Wednesday, the government cancelled visas for all foreign citizens and mandated quarantine for Indians returning from China, Italy, Iran, Spain, Germany and Republic of Korea and advised all Indians against non-essential travel, adding that they could be quarantined for 14 days on their return.
Twenty-two year old Anandita Abhay Bhalerao was scheduled to fly to Paris for a backpacking trip from Mumbai on Friday by Kuwait Airways.
However, her flight was cancelled after Kuwait banned the entry of nationals from several countries, including India. Despite the cancellation by the airline, the Mumbai-based writer was offered only a free date change.
Determined to join her friends, Ms Bhalerao then booked a ticket on Gulf Air for ₹39,000 which she was forced to cancel following the government’s advisory and received only half the fare as a refund.
“I booked both my tickets through Make My Trip (MMT). When Kuwait Airways cancelled the ticket, MMT said they were helpless and I will have to contact the airline. The airline offered only a date change, but that is not an option for me as I was travelling to celebrate my sister’s birthday and also because there is no clarity on how long the COVID-19 infection will continue,” Ms. Bhalerao told The Hindu over the phone.
A communications professional, Durga Nandini, was booked for travel to Vietnam on Malaysia Airlines between April 2 to 12.
Following the government’s advisory, the mother of a four-year-old is apprehensive about travelling. Though the airline allows her to change the date of her travel for free unlimited times until December 31, according to Make My Trip's website Ms. Durga will have to cough up ₹5,220 per ticket as penalty for rebooking. Alternatively, she will have to cancel her travel and bear the entire loss.
“I am a mother of a four-year-old and travelling for me is not an option because of the fear about COVID-19. Medical experts have argued that it may take upto 18 months to develop a vaccine and, therefore, I don't want to take the risk of travelling in the next eight months but my airline allows me to reschedule only until the end of the year,” says Ms. Durga.
“For regions where airlines have cancelled existing and new flights, we are offering 100% refund to our customers. Additionally, we are working in tandem with our airline partners to offer an option to change travel dates with no-fee charge; and are passing full fee waiver benefits rolled out by our partners to travellers,” Make My Trip said in an email response to queries.
Complaints from agents
Another family of two, who didn't want to be identified, was scheduled to travel to UK on Etihad Airways next week but seek to now reschedule their travel, which comes at a higher cost.
"We are being waived a penalty fee of ₹10,000 but we will have to spend additional ₹20,000 per ticket if I had to book my travel to UK in June through Etihad. The airline doesn't allow us to reschedule beyond June," the passenger said.
A senior DGCA official told The Hindu that the regulatory body had met with several international carriers, including Malaysia Airlines on Friday, and advised them to waive cancellation and rescheduling charges.
“We have also received many complaints about travel aggregators and we have asked airlines to ensure that their third party vendors implement waivers offered in toto,” the official said.