Covid-19 crisis: Indian airlines hold on to Rs 6,000 crore to avoid hard landing

Mumbai: India’s airline companies are estimated to be holding about ₹6,000 crore from payment for bookings made before all travel was suspended to curb the spread of Covid-19, according to aviation consultants and senior industry executives.

These funds, along with some short-term loans, are helping airlines stay afloat, they said. IndiGo is the exception — it has more free cash than almost all its rivals combined (₹ 9,000 crore at the end of December).

Carriers have allowed customers to cancel tickets without penalties but they’ve been offered credit vouchers rather than cash refunds, said the people cited above.

The ongoing three-week lockdown is to end on April 14 but there’s no clarity on when flights will resume, given that many states want the shutdown to be extended.

Kerala, for instance, is considering a plan to suspend all flights until the end of May, except for emergency travel.

All domestic flights were halted from midnight on March 24, with overseas services having been suspended before that.


Travel Demand may Stay Low

“Airlines have their bookings open after April 15 but no customer is booking right now,” said one of the executives cited above.

Travel demand is likely to be at an all-time low for several months after restrictions ease, they said, given fears of contagion in enclosed spaces.

Bookings being made now for the May-June period are down 80% from the year earlier, Sydney-based consultant CAPA-Centre for Aviation said in a recent note. CAPA also said it will take up to 12 months after curbs are lifted in India for the entire fleet of 650 planes to be flying again.

Indian carriers are dependent on advance ticket sales. All of them have kept PNRs active for future travel. Close to 75% of these are for flights till the end of June. GoAir and IndiGo have told passengers that their PNRs will remain active for a year. SpiceJet has said they can be redeemed until February 2021 and Air India until September 2020.

Airlines will have to rework schedules once restrictions are lifted with a likely staggered re-launch of services depending on demand and where they are allowed to fly. Many carriers will operate a skeletal network. Redeeming credit vouchers could be troublesome, especially for those bookings made through travel agents, said some of the people cited above. IndiGo’s Twitter feed is filled with customer complaints pertaining to refunds and rescheduling. It has referred many to the travel agents they used.

GoAir has upgraded its payment system to enable redemptions and rescheduling irrespective of how the the ticket was booked, said senior advisor Sanjiv Kapoor.

Balu Ramachandran, air business head at online travel agent Cleartrip, said it’s working on a tool to help customers redeem their credit vouchers.

However, payment gateway operators are clogged and call centres aren’t a help, according to some customers, who say they haven’t been able to communicate with airlines on refunds.

The traditional refund process has been disrupted.

“On a normal day, the refund volumes would be anywhere between 3-4% of the overall business that we process on our channels,” said Vishwas Patel, CEO of CC Avenue, a leading payment gateway. “We are unable to auto-credit refunds to our customers as the entire process flow has been disrupted. There is no money in our settlement accounts as new tickets are also not being purchased. It’s a process issue along with a bit of liquidity stress.”

Experts said restarting bookings without knowing when flights will resume is unfair to customers.

“As of now, significant funds of passenger are already locked with Indian carriers as a result of advance bookings prior to the lockdown and decision to allow bookings post April 14 without any decision of the lifting of lockdown will increase the risks which needs to be avoided,” CAPA said in a separate advisory. “Giving credit vouchers for all advance bookings prior to the lockdown was expected and is reasonable but not for bookings post April 14.”

There are concerns about the viability of the industry, with all planes parked on the ground.

“Closure of Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airlines has already resulted in massive losses to passengers as refunds couldn’t be processed resulting in crores of losses to passengers,” CAPA said in the advisory.

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