‘Can’t exploit hapless consumers’: IndiGo told to refund excess amount charged

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The complainant claimed that an arbitrarily exorbitant air fare excess by Rs 11,400 per ticket from the complainant, aggregating to Rs 57,000 for all ive air tickets was charged.

IN A rare order passed by the District Consumer Forum of Panchkula, it has asked Indigo Airlines to refund 53 per cent of the total fare, amounting to almost Rs 40,000 by ruling that airlines cannot exploit hapless consumers stuck in desperate situations.

According to the complaint filed by P R Singhania, he along with four others of his family had to go to Patna to attend a function and had reserved their tickets in Rajdhani Express almost three months prior for the same. But due to dense fog at that time in northern India, all trains including his were running extremely late. The complainant, after his train was delayed by 24 hours, was forced to cancel the said rail tickets and travel by air instead of train. He thus booked five air tickets via Indigo Airlines from Patna to New Delhi.

During the hearing of the case, it was argued that due to the compelling situation, the complainant was “forced” to pay Rs 74,500 for five tickets at Rs 14,900 per person, instead of the maximum usual tarrif Rs 3,000 to 3,500 per ticket.

The complainant claimed that an arbitrarily exorbitant air fare excess by Rs 11,400 per ticket from the complainant, aggregating to Rs 57,000 for all ive air tickets was charged.

The forum, noting that though several factors come into play while fixing the air fare, but replying upon the air fare charged by Air India, citing it is a public sector undertaking of Government of India, observed, that though “it is a matter of common knowledge that airlines charge higher rates in peak seasons as compared to lean seasons...it needs little emphasis to say that the airlines may increase or decrease its air fare...in a particular season or occasion keeping in view the feasibility and financial viability of its air flight... (but) the airlines are expected to follow and adhere to the principles of reasonableness and fairness while fixing the air fare on any particular route.”

Agreeing to the fact that the airline has exploited the situation by way of increasing the air fare exorbitantly by many times “to enrich itself and earn hefty profit at the cost of desperate passengers”, assuming 100% increase in the air fare, calling it “reasonable, fair and justifiable in the absence of any other documentary evidence contrary to it”, ordered the refund of the rest of the fare charged. In another complaint mentioned by the complainant, where they were made to wait almost three hours due to delay in flight without any explanation and meal, the forum ordered that Rs 5,000 to be given to the complainants. Rs 20,000 on account of mental agony and harassment with Rs 5,500 as litigation charges were ordered. The total penalty, that has been levied on the airlines, stands at almost Rs 75,000.

Dissenting Judgment

The decision passed by the three member bench including president Satpal along with Dr Sushma Garg and Pawan Kumar Saini, was not decided unanimously. While the majority view was taken into consideration and order was passed, Saini presented a different point of view in the case.

“I am of the view that fixing of air fare is completely within the domain of concerned air line. In my opinion, the issue in question disputing the charging of excessive exorbitant air fare being related to the policy decision regulating the air fare, is beyond the purview of the consumer forum,” said Saini. Claiming that even the ministry of civil aviation and Government of India have taken a policy decision to not interfere into the price fixation mechanism being adopted by the various air lines operating in India, he found it pertinent to mention, “Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) had issued guidelines in 2010 effective in 2016, regulating the various activities of airlines but had abstained from issuing any directions regulating the air fare.”

Citing a news report, he said that the aviation ministry informed the parliamentary committee that ‘airfare are not controlled by the government, but varies with the market forces of demand and supply and that this is a global practice in the aviation industry.’

Absence of Defence

Indigo airline did not appear to contest the claim of the complainant. The court drew adverse inference for the same and held it liable to be drawn against the airline. “The non- appearance of the airline despite notice shows that it has nothing to say in its defence or against the allegations made by the complainant” the order read. The assertions made by the complainant went unrebutted and uncontroverted.

Higher prices during festivals

The complainant had called the pricing mechanism in civil aviation in India ‘arbitrary’ and had sought capping of airfares, expressing concerns over charging higher ticket prices around festivals, holidays seasons, natural disasters, bad weather conditions and closer to the date of travel, by more than ten times of advance booking fare by some of the airlines. The complainant also flagged concerns over airlines not passing the benefits from fall in Aviation Turbine Fuel prices to the passengers even after a 50 per cent reduction of the ATF prices.