The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and the Ministry of Civil Aviation on Friday clarified in the Supreme Court that Civil Aviation Requirements (CARs) does not recognise private arrangements made between tour operators and airlines for advance bulk ticket bookings.

The government and the regulator’s duty is towards the passengers named in the “passenger manifest”. Passengers, whose flights were cancelled during lockdown, should not be forced to run from pillar to post or behind tour operators for their refund, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted before a Bench led by Justice Ashok Bhushan.

Bulk bookings

The government was responding to concerns raised by travel agents and tour operators, who said they usually pay a lump-sum amount from their own pockets to book these tickets in bulk. The cancelled flights during lockdown has caused them a huge loss. They had objected to the government’s refund proposal recommending payment of ticket money directly to the passengers. Tour operators and travel agents complained that not only have they lost their money but would now be expected to run behind passengers to get it back.

“This lump-sum payment of money by a travel agent or a corporate house on behalf of his client to the airlines, either in advance or after availing the flight services, is not recognised as a contract of purchase of tickets under the CARs. They remain in the realm of private contract between the parties,” Mr. Mehta referred to an affidavit filed jointly for the Ministry and DGCA clarifying their stand in the issue.

“The CARs recognise only those tickets, which are actually issued by the airline in the name of a known and identified traveller, who is either the client of the travel agent or an employee of a corporate house,” government said.

However, a suggestion came out during the discussion that passengers could transfer the credit shell into the tour operator’s name.

The proposed refund policy placed on record in court entails airlines to open credit shells in the names of passengers. Passengers can use the credit shell to fly any route. The credit is transferable to anyone. If the credit is not used, the ticket amount has to be mandatorily returned to the passenger by March 31, 2021. The passengers are also entitled to the incentive of an increase of .75% in the value of their shells if the credit remains untouched till March 31, 2021.

The court was hearing a petition filed by NGO, Pravasi Legal Cell, represented by senior advocate Sanjay Hegde and advocate Jose Abraham, on the plight of passengers whose flights were cancelled when the national lockdown following the pandemic saw flights grounded.

Deadline untenable

During the hearing, senior advocate Arvind Datar, for a private airline, objected to the March 31, 2021 deadline.

“We will refund the money to passengers, but March 31 is impossible. This will take a toll on our employees. This is a very difficult time. Your Lordships may consider extending the time by another six months or more,” Mr. Datar submitted.

“But as per CAR, no time is permitted at all. Refund should be immediate,” Justice R. Subhash Reddy observed.

“You have to pay,” Justice Bhushan agreed.

“We will pay. But give some more time. My employees also need to be paid,” Mr. Datar responded.

The court finally reserved the case for judgment.

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