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To A Flier’s Rescue

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Last week, I received an email from a close friend who lives in Bangkok, citing the unpleasant experience of a friend of hers who flew from Bangkok to Mumbai with his  family on a Kingfisher flight.

The long and short of his complaint was that when he and his family landed in Mumbai, he was rather dismissively informed by the airline that his luggage had been left behind in Bangkok because the flight had excess cabin baggage. The luggage that was on the flight, the passengers discovered, belonged to the previous day's passengers. This led them to conclude that baggage delay was routine for the airline, at least in this sector.
But more than the loss of luggage, what was upsetting was the way the staff present handled the passengers — there was no apology of any kind nor a sense of regret. The staff just indifferently handed over forms to the passengers and asked them to fill if they indeed wanted their luggage at all. The handling of passengers was poor enough for the person mentioned above to declare that "he would never sit in a Kingfisher aircraft again" even if they gave him free passage.

He sent three emails to Vijay Mallya, but got no response. What he got was an offer of Rs 10,000 in airline credits towards future purchase of tickets, when the standard compensation is $400!

A similar complaint of lost luggage has forced a newly married couple from Kolkata to approach the consumer court against IndiGo airlines. The airline lost the bag (which, the couple says, contained a lot of expensive clothing) on a 30 November flight; has failed to find it even now; and has offered a paltry Rs 1,800 as compensation. The couple does not consider it worth accepting.

Complaints against airlines are available by the hundreds. But complaints against airports are less commonly voiced or articulated. Delhi's own glossy Terminal 3 (T3) has its own, and growing, list of admirers. Clearing immigration and baggage arrival continues to take inexplicably long (up to three hours in several cases), leading many to declare that T3 is more gloss and carpet than anything else.

Recently, a friend's aged mother requested for a wheelchair (although she could walk) fearing the vast distances one has to cover inside the terminal. Much to her complete horror, her wheelchair attendant abandoned her before security (this after he had asked her for a tip to wheel her around). He did not show up even when the flight's last call was announced. Luckily, since she could walk, she abandoned the wheelchair and managed to make it just seconds before the doors closed.

That's why among the best news emanating from the sector in the past few weeks is the one on the Ministry of Civil Aviation contemplating setting up a quasi-judicial body to look into passenger complaints against airlines and airports, and provide them with a redressal mechanism. A senior ministry official said that in view of the growing number of passengers and, in fact, complaints, the need for an institutional mechanism has been felt so that passengers are not "at the mercy of" airlines or airports.

If newspaper reports are to be believed, airlines are already being penalised for cancellations and delays caused. But there is no one who can haul either the airlines or the airports over the coals for callous or poor handling of passengers. One can go to the consumer court, of course. But anyone who has will tell you what a cakewalk that is!

If carried out as proposed (Delhi will have the first one followed by other metros), the ombudsman will be authorised to deal with such complaints without passengers having to run around to get themselves heard. To start with, the ombudsman would do passengers a massive favour if it just listed passenger's rights and privileges on its website.

The Reserve Bank of India has set up an ombudsman for the financial sector to look into complaints against banks.

Someone I know came across a forgery in his bank account and used the banking ombudsman (we contacted the ombudsman after someone in the Reserve Bank mentioned the existence of one) to get the bank (in this case, Standard Chartered) to cough up the amount. Of course, the bank had no intention of doing this had the ombudsman not breathed down its neck!

So if the system can work for compensation from banks, there is no reason why the same cannot be made to work with airlines and airports in the country. And if nothing else, the very fact that this redressal system is available, will help alter both the behaviour of staffers and systems that airlines follow to make them more friendly to fliers.

anjulibhargava(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 07-02-2011)