Hundreds of Australians stranded in India anxious to return home are now caught in the middle of a “booking bungle” that has left a majority without tickets and others out of pocket.
Armed with a laptop and a mobile phone, Melbourne man Lakhpreet Singh stayed put on his chair in his northern Indian hometown of Kapurthala for hours on Wednesday, in readiness for the 'battle' to buy tickets for his family of four waiting to return to Australia.
But when Air India opened the bookings for the special flights from New Delhi to Adelaide set to fly out on August 3 and 6, the 38-year-old says the tickets disappeared within minutes.
“I stayed on the website and checked in on the Air India app, but the tickets were gone, I believe even before they opened them for booking. The website said the tickets had been sold out,” he says.
- Australians stranded in India allege travel agents are overcharging them for Air India flight tickets
- Air India warns passengers against buying tickets on inflated prices
- Hundreds of Australians remain trapped in India due to shortage of flights
'Travel agents are overcharging’
Turns out, most of the tickets had been withheld by “travel agents” who had been reportedly authorised by Air India to book and sell those tickets, leaving many like Mr Singh with no option but to look at alternate ways of securing a seat on a plane home.
“I could either go to an agent or to the nearest Air India booking office. So, I am now travelling from Kapurthala to Jalandhar to book tickets from their booking office.
“I do not want to book through an agent because most of them in Punjab are charging way above the price stipulated by Air India. When I inquired from an agent last night, he demanded Rs 1,25,000 (AUD 2,333) for a ticket that is priced at Rs 90,800 (AUD 1,670),” adds Mr Singh.
After being inundated with a barrage of complaints from angry customers, Air India took to Twitter to clarify that the tickets were still available and attributed the sold-out tickets to “technical challenges.”
Assuring travellers that tickets were still available, the airline advised them to book through their booking offices, call centre or travel agents.
Air India also issued a price list of all its flights under the Indian government’s Vande Bharat Mission, warning passengers to beware of travel agents forcing customers to pay more than the listed airfares.
‘I want to return by hook or crook’
After exhausting all other avenues Surinder Kaur*, who doesn’t want to disclose her real name, has booked tickets for her family through a Jalandhar-based travel agency.
The 35-year-old ended up forking out Rs 35,000 (AUD 653) more than the stipulated airfare for each of the three tickets she bought off the agent.
Ms Kaur says while the tickets have burnt a hole in her pocket, it was her last resort to safeguard her family’s interests and health, given the escalating cases of coronavirus infections in India.
“I am not proud of the fact that I have purchased these tickets at inflated prices, nor will I encourage anyone to do so. In fact, I am with those who think we should boycott these agents.
“But I was beyond desperate. We have no financial support here and every day spent here adds to the debt that’s building on us in Australia. We have mortgages and utility bills to pay for. I simply trusted my survival instinct,” she says.
*Not her real name
NSW-based travel agent Sunny who managed to withhold three tickets when the bookings opened claims he did not overcharge any of his three clients, but knows of agents in India who are.
“We had only three tickets and we just charged them $50 booking fee over and above the stipulated price.
“But I know agents are exploiting customers elsewhere. But to be honest, as long as customers are aware that they are paying more than the Air India set price range, it is a legal transaction. So, the onus is on the people who are buying these tickets,” he says.
'Australian High Commission must intervene'
Australian ex-pat Deborah Tellis who has been living in Bengaluru in south India along with her 16-year-old daughter for the past five years has been trying to return home in NSW ever since her long-term teaching contract came to an end in the month of May.
While she did not try to book tickets for the flights in question, the 55-year-old primary school teacher who has become an advocate for hundreds of Australians trapped in various parts of India, says she had thought the booking experience would be better this time, but it has only gone from bad to worse.
“It hasn’t been done fairly right because it seems like Air India opened the portal and sold all the tickets to the travel agents. The frustration level this time was excruciating for most people. Even when they were going on sale at 10:00 am by 10:30 they were all sold out,” she says.
Ms Tellis says the Australian High Commission must step up to safeguard the interests of its citizens and residents who are desperate to return home.
"The Australian High Commission needs to intervene and must make a priority list of the most vulnerable people experiencing financial difficulties, mothers and children, elderly people who need to get back. Then these people could be allowed to secure tickets first to make the process fair," she adds.
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