A group of sixteen tourists from Mexico—yes, Mexicans travel for leisure too—landed in Delhi recently en route to Khajuraho, investing their hard-earned pesos for a rendezvous with ancient Indian erotica. But their connecting Jet Airways flight via Varanasi was cancelled at the last minute without a caveat. The choice then was an Air India flight—which flew on alternate days and its fares were as inflated as a tortilla stretched to the size of a sombrero. Blowing hot like a jalapeño over the unexpected turn of events, the mariachis abandoned their up close and personal encounter with Kama Sutra and returned home. “It threw their plans and budget to the wind. A couple of Australian tourists had a similar experience and had to go back without reaching their intended destinations,” says Amit Prasad, CEO of tour operators Le Passage to India.
These examples reflect the current state of India’s aviation sector, which is besieged with flight delays/cancellations and fares touching the sky—forcing hundreds of foreign and domestic flyers to lose precious time, money, business opportunities and much more. Most tour operators portend that the scenario will get more critical during the summer elections and vacations. “November to April is considered peak season for foreign as well as domestic tourists. Unfortunately, the aviation crisis has hit this season,” says Arun Anand, head of Midtown Travels, which focuses largely on Chinese visitors.
The reasons are clear. Of more than 700 aircraft operating in the country, about 100 are grounded because of various reasons, leading to the cancellation of over 500 flights each day in the country. “As estimated 75,000 to 80,000 flyers are affected every day. They are either cancelling their trips or travelling on expensive tickets in other available airlines,” says D. Sudhakara Reddy, founder and national president of Air Passengers Association of India (APAI), a non-profit focusing on the rights, wellbeing and welfare of air passengers.
Multiple factors have contributed to the crisis. While Jet Airways and Air India are caught up in a financial mess, Indigo and GoAir are facing a shortage of crew. SpiceJet, on the other hand, had to ground all its 12 Boeing 737 MAX planes following a government ban in the wake of the recent crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane of the same model that killed all 157 on board. “The closure of airspace in Pakistan post-Pulwama contributed to the crisis as many international tourists had to change their flights because of the time difference of their connecting flights from foreign locations,” says Rajeev Kohli, the joint managing director of Creative Travel, a private tour operator. He says situations like grounding of Boeing 737 MAX and closure of airspace in Pakistan are events classified as force majeure—beyond anyone’s control—but most disruptions in the domestic sector could be attributed to the mess created by Jet Airways and Indigo to which, he says, the government has been a mute spectator.
Tour operators allege that Jet Airways grew as a carrier connecting many ports of tourism and overnight they removed the critical flights. “The government says it is the prerogative of the operators to increase fares. However, we must realise that flying is no longer a luxury, but an essential commodity today,” says Kohli, adding that single way fare from Delhi to Mumbai being anywhere between Rs 20,000 and Rs 22,000 amounted to profiteering and such fares need to be capped. The Mumbai-Delhi fare already surged 20 to 25 per cent beginning February due to the closure of Chhattrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport for repairs between 11 am and 5 pm three days a week.
Passengers say airlines are trying to minimise the inconvenience by refunding the fare, accommodating them on other planes or suggesting alternative flights, but that’s not enough. People familiar with the aviation sector call Indian regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, weak. Reddy suggests India needs something equivalent of a ‘codeshare agreement’ prevalent in Europe that lets a passenger of a cancelled flight travel on another on the same ticket without paying extra.