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The plea states that members of the travel agent sector are also suffering great financial hardships as crucial funds remain blocked with the airlines for travel not undergone and which, in fact, has been cancelled.
The Travel Agents Federation of India, a body of 1,400 travel service intermediaries/ non-IATA members from all over India, have moved the Supreme Court to intervene in a petition concerning the refund of air tickets bought for travel during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
The primary plea was moved by the NGO Pravasi Legal Cell through Advocate Jose Abraham. The Supreme Court had issued notice in the case on April 27 and had asked for the government to reply observing that not refunding the amount by airlines was "arbitrary."
The rights organisation had submitted that airlines operating both domestic and international flights in India are violating the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MCA) order obligates them to pay full refund for tickets booked for air travel during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
In the intervention application moved by Travel Agents Federation of India (TAFI), the association has assailed the Ministry of Civil Aviation's office memorandum of April 16.
It states that in para 3(i) of MCA's Office Memorandum of April 16, the Government had advised airlines to refund to the passengers money received for bookings made during the first lockdown period i.e. from March 25 till April 14, in cases where such refund is sought by the passengers.
Under para 3(ii), the government had further advised money to be refunded to the passengers for tickets booked by them during the period of the first lockdown i.e. from March 25 till April 14 for travel during the period of the second lockdown i.e from April 15 till May 3, in cases where such refund was sought by the passengers.
The intervention application states that the office memorandum is ambiguous and "stops short of offering an effective and complete resolution to the plight of the passengers."
"Firstly, the refund directed to be made vide the OM, is related only to the time of booking and not related to the date of travel. Hence the OM has excluded from its ambit, relief to such passengers who have made the booking prior to the lockdown period for their travel during the lock down period, of course, at the time of making the booking, being oblivious to the fact that such a lockdown situation is going to emerge during their proposed travel.
It is highly improbable that passengers would go ahead and make payments towards booking flights, despite being aware of the ban on domestic and/or international flights," reads the petition.
The plea argues that the OM issued had not given a meaningful relief to passengers who have booked tickets for travel during the lockdown period, be it the first or the second ensuing lockdown period.
Secondly, since the plea to intervene has been moved by the travel agents organisation, it notes that the OM has also failed to consider and include within its ambit the plight of the members of its federation as well as other travel agents.
It is explained,
"A travel agent makes the bookings on behalf of the passengers in two ways. In so far as regular flights are concerned, the payments towards tickets have to be made to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which is a trade association of the world's airlines. Once a ticket is issued , the airline raises a bill and within a window of 7-10 days, the travel agent has to make the payments towards the tickets issued. The travel agent makes the payment to the IATA which distributes the money to the concerned airline."
The other method is while making bookings on behalf of its customers, in so far as Low-Cost Carriers (LCCs) are concerned.
These airlines, such as GoAir, Indigo, Spice Jet or AirAsia etc, do not give any window to the travel agents to make payments towards tickets booked and in fact are required to make advance payments in the bank accounts of the airlines, which are maintained by the airline of individual travel agents for that purpose.
However, after lockdown began, the LCCs have already debited the amounts for tickets booked for travel during the lockdown periods and have refused to refund the same to the travel agents.
Thus, the intervenors have stated that the members of the travel agent organisation are suffering great financial hardships as crucial funds remain blocked with the airlines for travel not undergone and which, in fact, has been cancelled.
"The Airlines, instead of fairly refunding the payments made, have offered a credit shell, valid for a specified time, i.e instead of refunding the amounts received by the airline, against cancellation of travel during the lockdown, the airlines have offered to reschedule the travel on any date at the option of the passengers, upto a specified time. This offer is neither acceptable to the passengers nor to the members of the Applicant," reads the plea.