Union minister busts Air India ticketing scam

A prompt minister has unearthed an anomaly that Air India authorities “ overlooked” for years. Minister of state for civil aviation K. C. Venugopal, while flying on an Air India flight, detected a ticket scam and virtually busted it singlehandedly.

Venugopal was travelling to Kochi on a Delhi- Kochi- Thiruvananthapuram flight on January 4. The minister noticed as many as 23 vacant seats on the flight. Suspecting something amiss, he asked for the passenger manifest but the crew failed to produce one. Venugopal then instructed his office to file a formal complaint with the chairman and managing director of the airline, Rohit Nandan, and it did so promptly.

Air India launched an inquiry into the  complaint and by January 10, two officers from customer service — Kalyani Atre and Marie Bernascone — were suspended from duty. Interestingly, the Air India Employees’ Guild has not asked for the revocation of the suspension of the two officers, but complained to the labour commissioner to go deep into the racket as it suspects the involvement of top officials of the airline in the malpractice. Venugopal decided to inquire into the reason behind the vacant seats as a Kerala minister was denied a seat on the same flight due to “ non- availability of tickets”.

Confirming the incident, Venugopal said many passengers were waitlisted due to overbooking. “ I inquired about the occupancy after seeing the vacant seats. I asked my office to lodge a complaint and ask for an inquiry.” He said it is possible that bulk bookings of unknown persons may have been done by manipulating the computer system. “ Air India promptly ordered an inquiry,” the minister told.

Sources said the cost of an Air India ticket on Delhi- Kochi- Thiruvananthapuram flight on that day was ` 30,000 and hence the airline lost ` 6.9 lakh on that particular flight. Upset over the losses, Venugopal, sources said, has now decided to examine the history of old bookings. The ticket “ inconvenience”, suspected to be caused deliberately by officials of the government airline to benefit private carriers, has been a regular phenomenon with Air India flights. Jitendra Bhargava, former executive director, Air India, said it could be due to a technical glitch in online booking.

“ This kind of situation where a passenger is denied a seat on a flight has been there for a while and I have faced it myself. Much of this is to be blamed on systems error, which is often corrected by personal intervention and monitoring. I, too, had sorted out requests from passengers in the First Class category when they were denied seats citing ‘ booked status’, but in reality the seats were all unoccupied. The corrections were made possible only with direct checking.” Bhargava, however, did not rule out a ‘ foul play’ by agents and said they should be thoroughly probed and if found guilty, should be blacklisted. “ It could be possible that some agents are diverting the traffic to other airlines for incentives and a malaise within Air India cannot be overlooked completely… it needs to be examined to the roots.”

The former executive director complimented the minister for highlighting the issue and taking disciplinary action. Kapil Kaul , CEO, Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, South Asia, favoured a probe into the anomaly. “ Seat racket is rare in the current multi- carrier scenario. It was a usual thing when government- run carriers were monopolising the skies. I am surprised if it has happened when there are too many seats chasing the passengers. Although there can be a possibility when an entire group opted out at the last minute, but there should have been a correction by the airline in its system and for current seat status.

Nothing can be ruled out though… a thorough probe will only clear the picture.” Aviation experts smelt a racket behind the ticket non- availability. “ The minister may have accidently stumbled upon the racket on that particular day. What about other days? Hundreds of flights may have taken off with empty seats causing loss of crores of rupees to the national exchequer,” said an analyst. The national carrier has been bleeding at a time when private carriers in the country are making a killing. Official figures show that Air India suffered an average loss of ` 404 crore every month from March to October in 2012.

The figure was revealed recently when civil aviation minister Ajit Singh reviewed the functioning of the national carrier. An audit of the airline’s books showed that the company had a cash inflow of ` 1,348 crore per month while the outflow due to high fuel cost was ` 1,752 crore, leading to the cash deficit. Air India is currently reeling under an accumulated loss of over ` 28,000 crore.

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