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The Bench held that it was the primary responsibility of the Respondent to reach the boarding gate well before the departure time. The airlines have no obligation to wait for the passengers if they do not arrive in time, the Court observed
The Supreme Court on Monday held that the closing of departure gates by Airlines due to the failure of passengers to show up on time shall not be regarded as “Deficiency of Service” in terms of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.
Referring the Contract of Carriage applicable to flight passengers, the Supreme Court observed in its judgment that,
The judgment was rendered by the Bench of Justices AM Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari.
The central issue(s) in the case were :
Whether not allowing a passenger to board a flight after the departure gates have closed would amount to deficiency of service in terms of Section 2(1)(g) of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986;
To what extent would the principle of right to care for a passenger be applicable in case of non-boarding of the flight.
The Respondents were passengers who had booked air tickets from Kolkata to Agartala on a flight operated by Indigo, the Appellant Airlines.
It was contended by the Respondents that the flight operated by the appellant took off without any information about its departure, even though they had boarding passes. Also, that their request to be accommodated in the next available flight was given no heed.
The Respondent averred that as a result of this, they had to incur additional expenditure for extended stay and were subjected to mental harassment. Therefore, they filed a complaint before the District Forum claiming Rs. 3,77,770 along with an interest at the rate of 12 % per annum.
Indigo contested the claim at the District forum and stated that the Respondents had failed to comply with the conditions of carriage (COC) which stipulated that the boarding gate will be closed 25 minutes prior to the departure time. It was contended that this was in fact not the fault of the airlines, but of the Respondents themselves.
It was also contended by Indigo that they were not obliged to accommodate the respondents on another flight in light of “Gate No Show” stipulated in the COC.
The District Forum allowed the complaint, observing that there was no evidence to suggest that proper assistance had been provided to the Respondent to board the flight in the requisite time, thereby awarding a total sum of Rs. 41,432 payable within two months.
Indigo approached the State Commission in appeal, wherein the payable amount towards the Respondents was further enhanced to Rs. 51,432/-.
Indigo, thereafter, also approached the National commission in Revision. The National commission dismissed the revision petitions and imposed costs on Indigo, while citing the principle of right to care of the passenger.
Aggrieved, the Appellants approached the Supreme Court in Civil Appeal. Indigo averred that the three consumer forums had failed to consider the principles of pleadings and burden of proof, and that they had erroneously held that the appellants were liable for deficiency in service.
Further, it was contended that it was in fact, the responsibility of the Respondents to reach the boarding gate well within the stipulated time, as the airlines is not obliged to wait for the passengers. It was also pointed out that the airlines is required to close the boarding gate as soon as the permission to “Pushback” and “Start-up” is received from the ATC as per the Civil Aviation Requirements issued by the Director general of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
The Supreme Court found that the approach of the consumer fora was in complete disregard of the pleadings and the principles underlying burden of proof. It was observed that the shifting of onus to prove the case on the Appellant was entirely unjust. It was further held that the Respondents had failed to substantiate the allegation of deficiency of service.
In this regard, the Supreme Court firstly held that the Respondents had failed to establish any deficiency of service by any material evidence.
The Bench pointed out that the Contract of Carriage clearly stipulated that the Appellant shall not be liable in case of a no-show.
Relying on N. Satchidanand vs. Interglobe Aviation, the Court noted: “At the cost of repetition, we hold that the deficiency in service must be ascribed only in respect of the stated contractual obligations of the parties.”
The Bench held that it was the primary responsibility of the Respondent to reach the boarding gate well before the departure time. The airlines have no obligation to wait for the passengers if they do not arrive in time, the Court observed.
In this regard, the Court also noted that,
“The coordinate Bench of the National Commission in the case of The Manager, Southern Region (supra) has had occasion to observe that it would not be appropriate to cast an obligation on any airlines to delay the departure of an aircraft beyond the scheduled time of the departure and to await late arrival of any passenger, whosoever he may be, howsoever highly or lowly placed.”
The Bench further observed that there is no obligation on the airlines to escort every passenger to the departure gate after issuance of boarding pass. The duty of care towards the passengers would only apply in cases where the passengers are physically under compete control of the Air carrier, the Bench observed.
In view of these observations, the Supreme Court allowed the appeal by Indigo and dismissed the original complaint.
Indigo was represented by Senior Advocate Shyam Divan along with advocates Ajit Warrier, Angad Kochhar and Tanvi Dubey Advocate. Advocate Amlan Kumar Ghosh appeared for the respondents. Senior Advocate Rajiv Dutta appeared as Amicus Curiae in the matter, assisted by Advocate Sanjeev Kumar Singh.
[Read the Judgment]