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COVID-19 air travel: Travellers out of pocket by thousands as airlines fail to fly, refunds awaited

(L-R): Amarjit Kaur, Maheshinder Singh and Surjit Singh had travelled to India last year to holiday with their family there. Source: Supplied

Many travellers between Australia and India say they expect refunds worth thousands of dollars for their air tickets rendered useless by the coronavirus travel bans across the world. While some airlines have offered credit, others have promised refunds, in part or full.

Brisbane’s Maheshinder Singh took his aged parents Surjit Singh and Amarjit Kaur to Punjab in November last year, to spend, what they thought would be a “long, relaxing holiday”.

A few months into strolling through the verdant farms of their hometown, Bathinda and socialising in its rustic atmosphere, the Singh family was met with a challenge.


Highlights:

  • International travellers have thousands of dollars stuck in refunds
  • They say getting money back from airlines is “tedious” and "confusing"
  • While some airlines offer credit, others have promised refunds, with and without cancellation fees

Multiple refunds in pipeline

A few days before their return date, a lockdown had been enforced in India and Australia. Their tickets to return to Australia had become unusable.

“We had bought return tickets for Singapore Airlines for over $3600 last year. We got the dates changed, assuming the lockdown will be lifted in a few weeks, but that didn’t happen and Singapore Airlines didn’t fly,” says Mr Singh.

Charter flight from India
The Lion Air chartered flight that brought hundreds of Australians from India last month.
Supplied: Tinson Thomas

According to Singapore Airlines' website, customers may be entitled to either flight credits or refunds depending on their ticket and method of booking. Some bookings are even entitled for a bonus credit ranging from 75 to 500 Singapore dollars.

Mr Singh says he then contacted the Australian High Commission in New Delhi for advice on the way forward.

“We were advised by them that Air India’s bookings were still open and will be flying to Australia when the lockdown is lifted. Being the only direct flight between India and Australia, we booked our return trip with them for which we paid around $4200,” Mr Singh adds.

The ban on international commercial flights by India began on March 25 and was expected to end on April 14. But it was extended till May 3 and is still in force.

India's Ministry of Civil Aviation had instructed all airlines to give full refunds for tickets issued during the lockdown period.

“Even Air India didn’t fly, so we had no choice but to take the chartered flight by Lion Air to Melbourne. We had no choice but to buy a third set of tickets to get back home for another $7000,” Mr Singh says.

“I’m owed over $6000 in refunds, only for the return leg of our journey. Imagine the plight of large families which usually visit India between December and March every year. We are out-of-pocket by large amounts of money in these financially-stressful times, and talking to airlines is very tedious,” he rues.

Mr Singh says that despite prolonged correspondence with airlines, he still has no idea about his refunds, their amount or timing.

'Not our fault'

Travellers say they are having to chase airlines constantly by phone and email, and feel “left in the dark” about what to expect: a full refund or pay cancellation charges.

Avtar Singh Kalsi and his wife Paramjit, both tourists from India had arrived in Melbourne a few months ago.

“I’m owed a part refund by one airline and credits by another. They have given no clarity whether I’ll be charged for cancellation or not. But ethically, why should customers be charged for flights that didn’t take off due to the coronavirus,” questions Mr Kalsi.

“I have no idea whether I will get back my $5000 or not. For me, it is over 250,000 Indian rupees,” he says with concern.

‘Refunds causing stress’

Melbourne-based Kashyap Mehra and his large family of eight left for Punjab in February to attend a wedding. When they returned to Australia, they had spent enough money on multiple air tickets to expect $20,000 in refunds.

km
Mr and Mrs Mehra aboard the Lion Air chartered flight to Melbourne.
Supplied

The feasting and dancing in their hometown of Amritsar, had just about begun winding up when the coronavirus lockdown struck, which meant they couldn’t get back home.

“Our initial tickets were with Air Asia, which could no longer fly to Australia as it had a halt in Malaysia. The only reliable airline appeared to be Air India, so we booked ourselves on it,” Mr Mehra says.

Eventually, they also had to return home by the Lion Air chartered flight, like hundreds of other Australian citizens and permanent residents stranded in India till early May.

“Thinking about the refund amount stresses our family out. Air Asia has offered credits which we have not received yet. Air India issued a notification stating they’ll process a full refund. I have contacted them several times from Australia and my brother has done that on my behalf in India too. Their customer care phone number keeps ringing out. We haven’t got any promising reply yet,” he adds.

Air Asia has offered refunds and free rescheduling of tickets, according to their website. 

Airlines have made public statements calling for patience from travellers as they are dealing with a high volume of refund requests.

Disclaimer: Information on refunds, cancellation and rescheduling by airlines is subject to change. Please go to the website of the airline for updated information or contact your travel agent.

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