Killing the golden goose

The Ministry of Civil Aviation’s Draft Passenger Charter, unveiled with much fanfare in May and promising long-suffering Indian air travellers some basic rights somewhat on par with what their brethren enjoy in other, better regulated geographies, was quietly buried last month, with airline operators refusing to budge on most of the issues. While there is no official word on this, media reports indicated that the Ministry decided to “put on hold” the operationalisation of the draft charter, following strong pushback from stakeholders (airlines) on almost all the passenger-friendly moves suggested by the Ministry. With Assembly elections in full swing in five States and with the general election to follow a few months later, the can has effectively been kicked down the road, until such time as the government which comes to power in 2019 chooses to pick up the issue again. Reforms in civil aviation This appears highly unlikely, since almost all the reforms in the civil aviation sector have so far been focused on expanding the sector and speeding up growth. While that objective has been achieved, with the Indian domestic aviation market remaining by far the fastest-growing market in the world for the past few years, there have been a few reform moves aimed at securing passengers a better deal. It is no coincidence that IndiGo and SpiceJet popped up with their passenger unfriendliest move yet within days of the news about the charter going into deep freeze breaking — of charging passengers for web check-ins. While that move appears illogical — self-service check-ins save airlines time, money and resources — the thinking appears to be that passengers will be willing to cough up the extra bucks rather than rushing to the airport to check in. This is likely to happen unless the regulator intervenes (currently, the government has said it is “reviewing” the matter). The check-in and boarding experience at most Indian airports is already nightmarish, with all airlines now insisting that passengers arrive at least 120 minutes ahead of time at airports located increasingly farther away from city centres, and if most now opt for a counter check-in, that time may well double. Remember, time is money for passengers too, which is why most choose to fly in the first place. This is cynical and exploitative thinking on the part of the airlines concerned, but pretty much par for the course as far as the industry is concerned. Just last week, it was revealed that the British aviation regulator is looking into how airlines there were manipulating their seating algorithms to intentionally break up families travelling together, so that they’d pay extra to be seated together. Nothing extraordinary Can you think of any similar pro-passenger initiative undertaken suo motu by the Indian regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA)? I can’t. When it has acted — such as when airlines started charging exorbitant fares during peak season — its solutions have proved ineffective in actually curbing airlines. Even in the case of the aborted passenger charter, it appears to have caved far too easily. After all, the charter laid out nothing every extraordinary. In the section on delays, for instance, it said: “When delay is more than 24 hrs from published scheduled time of departure and involves flight on the next day, passenger to be offered free-of-charge hotel accommodation (including transfers).” This used to be standard practice even in India, before “unbundling” removed most rules. And asking airlines to serve free hot snacks and beverages to passengers who are stuck inside an airplane on the tarmac for more than 60 minutes should be seen as a humanitarian requirement rather than the existence-threatening cost escalation that the airlines made it out to be. So was the provision that airlines treat domestic and international passengers on par when it comes to lost or delayed baggage. The reason they are different right now (with compensation to international passengers being higher) is that airlines have to comply with regulations at the destination when they fly beyond Indian borders. This kind of regulatory arbitrage points to the fundamental reason why Indian air travellers get a raw deal when it comes to regulatory protection — there is no truly independent and empowered regulator. The DGCA is an offshoot of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, and far more susceptible to political and lobbying pressures. It has little or no connect with passengers (I’m betting that everyone reading this is an airline customer — were any of you consulted as a “stakeholder” on the charter?), leading it to give in easily when faced with ‘industry will collapse’ kind of threats. Above all, it lacks the technical expertise to keep up with nimble-footed airlines. The regulator’s primary responsibility should be to ensure the safety and comfort of passengers and provide a well-demarcated set of rules so that the paying public gets a fair deal. But that won’t happen till it is made truly independent and empowered.

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