Vikas Kalani, a senior executive at a Mumbai-based investment company, wished to travel from Mumbai to Calcutta on the best deal available online. After surfing the Internet, he booked two round-trip air tickets to Calcutta from Mumbai on a leading online travel agency (OTA). For some reason, he had to reschedule his trip and couldn’t get tickets for the dates he wanted. So he decided to cancel the reservation. And thus, began his nightmare.
The airline deducted the cancellation amount, but when he approached the online portal for the rest of the money what he got was Rs 3,500 out of a total of Rs 18,200 he had originally paid.
“I was told that I could get a refund of only Rs 3,500 which formed the tax component. As for the fare, the portal explained that it had bought the tickets at a higher price than it had charged me and, as per the policy of the company, it could not refund the amount,” says Kalani.
Like most people looking for the best online deals while booking airline tickets, Kalani made one cardinal mistake — not reading the fine print and the “terms and conditions” section.
Kalani had booked a “non-refundable ticket”. Also, he was unaware of the conditions that applied to it. But in this case, the OTA was also partly to be blamed. “During the process of booking, there is always a time difference between the time you confirm the buying of the ticket and the request for the ticket. Since at the time we were booking it someone else booked, we lost the seats of the lowest fare category. But we stuck to our commitment and booked Kalani in the higher fare category, absorbing the difference. Before completing the booking we informed the customer about the upgrade,” says TravelGuru.com, the agency through which Kalani booked his tickets.
“Customers, in such cases, are not allowed to make any changes to the ticket issued by us as they have to abide by the rules which apply to the ticket booked originally,” says the agency. Kalani says that he was unaware of the upgrade and the terms and conditions.
When it comes to booking air tickets online, Kalani’s problem is just one of the many problems that customers face on a regular basis. These often relate to multiple deductions from credit cards owing to a computer malfunction, non-existence of booked seats which is discovered only on reaching the airport, non-delivery of tickets, wrong printing of dates on the tickets or even no understanding of the terms and conditions by the customers. But to be fair, the OTAs are not always responsible for the problems and the harassments customers face.
Just as the Indian travel sector is booming, so is the online travel booking sector. “While online travel comprises 10 per cent of the world’s travel and tourism industry, it is pegged at around two to five per cent of the Indian travel industry. Growing at the current rate, the online travel industry in India is expected to become a $2 billion industry by 2008,” says Stuart Crighton, chief operations officer, Cleartrip.com, one of the leading OTAs.
While customers have the option of booking tickets directly from various airline websites, many prefer the OTAs as these sites display the fares of major airlines, mostly of the low-cost carriers, and promise to offer the best deals with some tickets at prices even less than those offered by the airline.
“Some OTAs may indulge in tactical promotions to show that the price of the tickets sold on their website is less than that on other sites but the airlines are not responsible for that. Moreover, people look for some value addition when they approach these websites,” says Manoj Chacko, general manager, global sales and distribution networking, Kingfisher Airlines.
It is while booking discount tickets, which are more often than not “non-refundable”, that consumers should be very careful. They should book a ticket only when they are sure that they will make the trip.
There is another problem. Usually, the ‘terms and conditions’ on these websites are long and full of jargon and as they are issued by the OTAs, they are heavily loaded in their favour. Typically, a travel portal’s “terms and conditions” when printed can go up to five or six full length pages.
“I agree that customers often find the fine print intimidating and cumbersome. However, it is needed to cover the myriad situations that can arise,” says Dhruv Shringi, director and co-founder, Yatra Online Pvt. Ltd. Adds Hari V. Krishnan, vice-president, product and marketing, TravelGuru.com, “Like pretty much in every industry, online travel portals have some key differences in India, some of which are due to the macro conditions in India and the fact that several support industries are developing at the same time.”
That perhaps is adding to the problems. As Faisal Farooqui, founder and CEO of India’s leading consumer review website MouthShut.com, points out, “The presence of travel portals in the market has undoubtedly increased. More than anything else, what customers look for is transparency, and unless the travel agencies address this problem, I think we will continue to receive such complaints.”
Some agencies, however, agree that if the OTAs can arrive at an agreement on the terms and conditions and restrict them to a minimum, it would help serve customers better. As Shringi underlines, “The OTA market is beginning to mature and like any other fast growing industry, there is a need to standardise rules and follow a consistent approach.” The sooner that happens, the better it will be for air travellers.
By the way, after The Telegraph intervened, the amount due to Kalani was paid to him by the portal.