New Delhi: Customers demanding cash refunds for flights axed because of the coronavirus are putting the squeeze on India’s travel agents, who are only receiving virtual money from airlines solely to be used for future bookings.
Indian authorities have told airlines to repay passengers in cash for tickets booked during the nationwide lockdown, but there’s no such obligation when it comes to travel agents. That leaves them digging into their own pockets to appease disgruntled customers. The default option for most travel agents in other countries is to give credit notes and only provide a refund if asked.
“My wallet balance is increasing, but the cash balance in my bank account is falling,” Easemytrip Chief Executive Officer Nishant Pitti said, referring to the credit he is accumulating from airlines. “It’s the travel-agent community that’s getting hurt,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg News.
Easemytrip, one of India’s leading online travel companies, has paid out about 500 million rupees ($6.6 million) to customers in the past few weeks, while its wallet balance has ballooned to 750 million rupees, Pitti said.
The strain India’s travel agents are under is yet another sign of the damage that the coronavirus is inflicting on aviation and related industries. The pandemic has led to drastic restrictions on movement and the grounding of airline fleets. Countries such as China are seeing a rebound in domestic air travel, but that’s not the case in India as flights have been banned since March 25. Hundreds of thousands of trips have had to be canceled.
Hangsha Deka, a 33-year-old real-estate consultant, booked a ticket on April 1 to fly from New Delhi to Guwahati on April 15 to be with his wife for the birth of their first child, but the flight was canceled. Easemytrip has provided a refund, according to Deka, who eventually got special permission to drive the 1,900 kilometers (1,180 miles) to the the city in northeast India’s Assam state.
Meanwhile, journalist and author Shuma Raha is still waiting for a refund after booking a business-class ticket directly with state-run Air India to fly to Kolkata from New Delhi on April 15. When Raha asked for a refund, Air India replied by email asking for her “understanding and cooperation,” but didn’t say anything about when a payment would come.
“That’s the problem, it’s all because of high-handed behavior of airlines — they just don’t care for anything,” said Sudhakar Reddy, president of Air Passengers Association of India, referring to airlines not reimbursing passengers and travel agents with cash.
An Air India spokesman said the company has clearly mentioned its refund policy on its website, and it adheres to that for every customer. The policy states that the airline will waive no-show charges and protect the “full value” if a passenger holds a ticket for travel between March 23 and May 14. Passengers can reschedule their flights until Sept. 30 without paying for a change in date, flight or route, and a full refund will be made if a booking was made during March 25-May 3 for travel during that time.
Last month, an organization working for migrants’ rights filed a case in India’s top court seeking refunds for all flights canceled due to the lockdown, not just those booked during the period. The court has issued notices to the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Directorate General of Civil Aviation about the matter.
As much as 90% of flight tickets in India are sold through travel agents, a market dominated online by the likes of MakeMyTrip Ltd., Yatra Online Inc. and Easy Trip Planners Ltd., a private company that operates Easemytrip.
Representatives at MakeMyTrip and Yatra declined to comment on refunds and payment requests.
MakeMyTrip shares, which trade in the U.S., have lost 36% this year through Thursday, valuing the company at $1.5 billion. Yatra has tumbled almost 70% this year, shrinking its market value to just over $44 million. Expedia Inc., one of the world’s biggest online travel agencies, is valued at $9.4 billion even after sliding almost 40% this year.
Sanjay Narula, managing director of New Delhi-based Apex Travel and Tours, said the Indian government needs to find ways to help airlines, hotels and restaurants for tourism and travel agents to succeed in the long term.
“As the largest distribution arm of the airlines and a significant service provider to hotels and transportation services, travel agents and tour operators too seek lower taxes,” said Narula, a former vice president of the Travel Agents Association of India. “Getting credit from suppliers is likely to get more demanding in future and a rise in insurance costs too is quite likely.”
India is one of the world’s fastest-growing aviation markets, with low-cost operators like InterGlobe Aviation Ltd.’s IndiGo and SpiceJet Ltd. cornering the bulk of local air traffic. Close to 3 millions jobs in aviation and related industries could be lost this year because of the pandemic, as well as more than $11 billion in revenue, according to the International Air Transport Association.
The world’s second-most populous nation entered the third phase of a lockdown on May 4 as the government tries to limit the spread of the virus, which had infected more than 56,000 people in the country and killed almost 1,900 as of Friday. There’s no clarity yet on when local and international flights will be allowed again.-Bloomberg