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How airlines decide to board or not to board passengers

LiveMint logoLiveMint 23-04-2017 Shaikh Zoaib Saleem

United Airlines is in the news again. Some years ago, a Canadian musician wrote a song, alleging that the airline broke his guitar. Hear the song here: bit.ly/1p6Adjq. This time, a passenger was forcibly de-boarded from a United flight, and nobody is amused.

Airlines regularly deny boarding to passengers as they overbook flights during peak times and most travellers know that de-boarding can happen to anyone. It is so common, there are rules about it and they are regularly updated too. In India, a new set of rules kicked in from August 2016. “Consumer protection vis-a-vis air passengers and airlines is an evolving subject in the Indian context,” said Mahesh Y. Reddy, secretary general, Air Passengers Association of India. Here are some scenarios is which you may be denied boarding, and your rights if you face this ordeal.

Airlines often overbook flights because they don’t want empty seats due to no-shows—people who have confirmed tickets but don’t show up by the stipulated time. But what happens when airline’s calculations go awry and more passengers turn upwell within the stipulated time, than the number of seats on a plane? Section 3, Series M, Part IV of Civil Aviation Requirements—as issued by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in July 2016 and came in to force in August 2016—says that the airline must first ask for volunteers to give up their seats.

While the rules allow denial of boarding, it is up to the airlines to decide how and who should be denied. An airline official, who declined to be named, said that airlines first approach the non-frequent fliers. If no one volunteers, they allow boarding on ‘first come first served’ basis at the airline counters, however, they usually give preference to frequent fliers.

“On an overbooked flight, the airlines generally deny boarding to the last reported passengers, even if they are on time,” said John Nair, head—business travel, Cox & Kings Ltd. The rules state that boarding can be denied only in exchange of benefits and facilities “as the airline, at its own discretion, may wish to offer, provided airports concerned have dedicated check-in facilities which make it practical for the airline to do so.” Before the new rules kicked in, if a passenger was denied a seat due to overbooking, the airline had to pay Rs2,000-4,000, depending on the duration of the flight. This was in addition to the ticket being refunded.

Under the new rules, this compensation has been increased. If the alternate flight is scheduled to depart within 24 hours of the original flight, then the compensation is up to Rs10,000; and up to Rs20,000 if the next flight is more than 24 hours away.

If the alternate flight is within an hour, there won’t be any compensation.

If a passenger does not want the airline’s alternative arrangement, the ticket’s full value will be refunded, along with a compensation that is 400% of the one-way basic fare plus airline fuel surcharge, up to a maximum of Rs20,000.

According to DGCA data, the average compensation per customer, for denial of boarding, during the 7 months between August 2016 and February 2017 (after the new rules kicked in) was Rs14,908. This was Rs3,238 in the 7 months before the new rules (January to July 2016).

Reddy said that some of the passengers who can be legitimately denied boarding are: those are in advanced stages of pregnancy, drunk or unruly, exhibiting violent behaviour and patients suffering from certain medical or psychological conditions. They can be denied travel even if they hold valid tickets. In some cases, even a ticket may not be issued to some of them. “Of course, while booking the ticket, the passenger...may hide such facts. It all depends on the fact as evidenced from each passenger depending on her current state. There is no blanket permission or law for an airline to disallow a passenger for ever,” he said. Late reporting is good reason to be denied boarding. Therefore, “Have a confirmed flight ticket and check-in online apart from being on time,” Nair said. However, despite such measures, there have been cases of boarding being denied, he said.

If a ticket is cancelled or not used, the airline has to refund all statutory taxes along with the User Development Fee and Passenger Service Fee. Earlier, the airlines had to return only the passenger service fee. But there was lack of clarity on other charges and taxes. These new rules are applicable on all types of fares, including promotions and offers where the basic fare is non-refundable. Moreover, airlines cannot levy a cancellation charge that is more than the basic fare plus fuel surcharge. Also, the airlines cannot levy any additional charge to process the refund.

According to the old rules, if tickets were booked through travel agents, passengers and travel agents had to sort out the refund among themselves. But now the onus of the refund has been put on the airlines and airlines have only 30 working days to complete the refund process.

In case of flight cancellation, the airlines have to inform the passengers as early as 2 weeks in advance. And the passenger can choose a refund or an alternate flight. If the passenger is informed less than 24 hours before the departure, the airline will have to offer an alternate flight that’s within 2 hours of the original scheduled time. If the passengers are not informed 24 hours before departure, they are to be compensated up to Rs5,000 or Rs10,000, depending on the flight’s duration. This will be in addition to the refund.

But no compensations will be paid if the cancellation is due to factors outside the airline’s control, for example natural disasters or political unrest. And, hotel accommodation has to be provided when the flight is delayed by over 24 hours or when necessary. However, for flights that get delayed by less than 2 hours, customers do not get any compensation.

Obviously, nobody boards a flight hoping to get compensated for being denied boarding or be delayed. But if that does happen, there are rules to ameliorate the situation. Know them and use them.

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