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Wanton overbooking of flights and consequent denial of entry to passengers would amount to penalizable deficiency of services. In a recently decided case, the National Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission (NCDRC) indicated as much, when it upheld penalties imposed on Air France for denying boarding to three passengers on account of overbooking.
The judgment was rendered last month by President, Justice DK Jain and Member, M Shreesha.
Advocates AR Takkar, Amarjeet Kumar, Shriya Takkar and Ajay Bansal represented Air France. Advocates Satvik Varma, Lalltaksh Joshi and Neha Gupta represented the complainants in the case.
The dispute can be traced to November 2002, when the three complainants were due to take a rescheduled flight from Paris to India. However, they were not allowed to board the flight on account of over-boarding at the time.
Consequently, notice was issued to Air France and the travel agent in December 2002 in a dispute that was presented before the Uttar Pradesh State Consumer Dispute Redressal Board. The complainants, who were employees of Sahara India, claimed monetary compensation for loss of business, harassment and humiliation on account of deficiency of services.
In the proceedings that followed before the State Consumer Board, Air France contended that the practice of overbooking was prevalent all over. It was argued that to deny boarding when a flight is overbooked is an accepted practice, nationally and internationally.
On account of the same, it was pointed out that the complainants in this case were each given 300 Euros (approximately Rs 53,500), besides free accommodation with meals, telephone vouchers and telephone cards. Air France contended that the complainants were now taking undue advantage of the situation, after having availed these courtesies and accepted the aforementioned compensation.
However, while ruling in favour of the complainants, the State forum emphasised that airlines should not be allowed to overbook indiscriminately and beyond reasonable dimensions. On this aspect, the State Forum had opined,
“…Instead of taking recourse to this sort of policy, the airlines must impose stringent conditions for the eventuality of cancellation of tickets…
Refunding of money equivalent to the entire price of the ticket or with minor deductions to a passenger under contemplation of earning profit by overbooking of the tickets to large number of passengers could create an instability, indiscipline and unfair trade practice.
Well accepted terms and conditions of booking a ticket may be of multi facet dimensions by no stretch of reasoning excessive overbooking at the cost, convenience and comfort of the passengers to whom the boarding is denied should and would be acceptable. [sic]”
The state forum also placed reliance on the Montreal Convention (Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air) to hold,
“The practice of overbooking does not authorize an airline to go to any extent of overbooking and resultant ‘denied boarding’ to a large number of persons without any rhyme or reason. There should be a plausible explanation for overbooking to a certain extent and justification must also be offered for scrutiny… mere right of overbooking without a sense of duty or liability cannot be endorsed to be a justifying weapon.”
This served as the primary ground for the State forum to direct the payment of approximately Rs 6 lakh each to the complainants as compensation, with interest. The forum had also dismissed objections concerning territorial jurisdiction and the applicability of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 before it arrived at this verdict.
On appeal, the NDRC affirmed the view of the State forum. On the crucial aspect of whether overbooking would amount to an offence as far as consumer laws are concerned, it was observed,
“The practice of overbooking may be a commercially viable international practice being adopted by all the Airlines, probably, to ensure that seats in the flights do not go vacant in the event of no-shows by booked passenger (s) but the same cannot be at the alter of the passengers.
Not permitting a passenger, holding confirmed ticket to board a flight, amounts to deficiency of service on the part of an Airline.”
This observation was made in light of the fact that there was no cogent evidence to show that the airline had taken all necessary measures to prevent unnecessary delay in the complainants’ departure.
There was nothing to indicate that it was impossible for the airline to take such measures, as per Article 20 of the Warsaw Convention and Article 19 of the Montreal Convention. Moreover, there was nothing to show that the practice of overbooking flights has the sanction of Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). Therefore, the NCDRC found that there was no fault in the finding of the State Commission on this aspect.
However, the compensation payable for the losses suffered by the complainants on this account was reduced. The Court made the reduction after it observed that the compensation awarded by the lower forum was a little on the higher side, given the factual circumstances.
Instead, the Court directed that a lump sum compensation of Rs 4 lakh be awarded to each of the complainants for the personal inconvenience and harassment suffered by them.