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Data: More than 40% of the Complaints against Airlines in 2020 & 2021 were about ‘Refund’, more than 90% of them against ‘Air India’


Data from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) indicates that while the total number of complaints against scheduled airlines reduced in 2020 & 2021, there was a dramatic and more than 10-fold increase in the number of complaints related to ‘Refund’ in 2020 & 2021. While complaints related to ‘Refund’ made up for more than 40% of all complaints in 2020 & 2021, more than 90% of the ‘Refund’ related complaints were against ‘Air India’ alone. 

The aviation industry is among the most severely impacted sectors because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The restrictions on air travel in wake of the first wave of COVID-19 in India had severely impacted the airline industry. The recovery after the first wave was hampered with the onset of the second wave. The industry is once again on the path of recovery, though slower than expected.  During the first wave and in the later months, the restrictions on air travel resulted in the cancellation of the airline services thereby impacting the travellers. 

The Air-Sewa application launched by the Ministry of Civil Aviation is a digital platform that enables travellers to submit grievances and seek information on air travel in India. Even otherwise, the domestic scheduled airlines are required to submit the details of the complaints to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) as part of their monthly submission. Here is a look at the trends in passenger complaints received by domestic airlines over the years. 

A decline in the complaints during the pandemic

Responding to a question in Lok Sabha, the Minister for Civil Aviation on 10 February 2022, provided information on the complaints received against domestic airlines between 2019 and 2021. 

As per this information, a total of 5380 complaints were received against scheduled domestic airlines in the country during 2021. The number of complaints in 2021 was higher compared to the year 2020 when 4768 complaints were recorded. However, this is a sharp fall compared to the pre-pandemic year of 2019, when 9074 complaints were received. With the suspension of airline services during the pandemic, it is understandable that the number of complaints reduced due to lack of airline activity.  

However, prior to 2019, there has been a gradual declining trend in the number of complaints from 2015 to 2018.  As per the information provided in Rajya Sabha in 2016, based on the data received by DGCA from scheduled domestic airlines, a total of 11,052 complaints were received in 2015, which is the highest during the 9-year period of (2013-2021). 

Most of the complaints during the pandemic were regarding ‘Refund’ 

The impact of the pandemic was clearly visible in the nature of the complaints received prior to and during the pandemic.  In 2020, when restrictions were placed on air travel, 47.5% of the complaints received were related to “refund”. This may have been due to large scale flight cancellations. The trend continued even in 2021, which was also hit by the pandemic. In 2021, 2259 out of 5380 complaints i.e., 42% were related to refund. 

The proportion of the complaints that were about refunds was much lower in the earlier years. 

In 2019, these complaints constituted only 195 out of the 9074 complaints, just around 2% of all the complaints. The same is the case even in the earlier years, with the number of complaints relating to refund was not among the major type of complaints in terms of numbers. 

In view of COVID-19, DGCA had issued a circular on 07 October 2020, with directions relating to the refund on cancellation of air tickets during COVID-19 lockdown. This was following the directions of the Supreme Court  (W.P (Civil) – 570 of 2020) in a case filed by aggrieved persons about cancellation charges. 

Prior to the pandemic, most of the complaints were related to ‘Baggage’, ‘Customer Service” & ‘Flight problem’

As highlighted earlier, ‘Refund’ formed a small share of the complaints received by the Airlines prior to 2020. Most of the complaints received to prior to 2020 were under three main categories – ‘Baggage’, ‘Customer Service’ & ‘Flight Problem’. 

The complaints in these categories were lower in 2020 & 2021, which has also contributed towards a lower number of complaints overall, despite a more than 10-fold increase in complaints related to ‘refund’ during 2020. 

These complaints are generally a result of flight operations. The restrictions in flight operations during the pandemic meant that a lower number of operations related complaints were filed by the consumers. 

  • In 2019, the year before the pandemic, ‘Flight Problem’ was the category with the most complaints (3888 complaints). It was a substantial increase from 1944 to 2018. The increase in the number of complaints under this category is one of the major reasons for an overall increase in the complaints in 2019. 
  • Complaints relating to ‘Customer Service’ is another category with a substantial number of complaints. During 2016-19, the trend was fluctuating though it was the category with the second-the greatest number of complaints. In 2020, the number of complaints under this category was only 644, which increased to 1054 in 2021. 
  • Baggage related complaints are another major category of complaints and are directly related to flight operations. The restrictions in 2020 & 2021 meant that the number of baggage related complaints were lower in these two years. Like ‘customer service’, the declining trend in the number of complaints was arrested in 2019. However, in 2020, the number of complaints (531) fell to nearly a quarter of the number of complaints in 2019 (2091).

The other type of complaints against domestic airlines is related to – Staff behaviour, disability, fare, catering, etc., though they are low in number. 

Air India received the most complaints related to ‘Refund’ 

In the response provided in Lok Sabha in February 2022, the government provided a breakup of the complaints received against the respective domestic airlines. The information is for the period 2019 to 2021 and is based on the monthly traffic data submitted by the scheduled airlines to DGCA. 

Among the domestic airlines, Air India, Spice Jet & Indigo received the greatest number of complaints during the 3 years. It is imperative since these airlines have the highest market share among the scheduled domestic airlines. 

  • In 2019, Indigo received the greatest number of complaints related to ‘fight problem’, followed by Air India. It also received the greatest number of complaints related to ‘baggage’ with 857 out of 2091 complaints in that year. 
  • Air India received the most complaints related to ‘Customer Service’. 59% of the complaints received under ‘Customer Service’ in 2019 were for Air India. 
  • Air India also happens to have the highest proportion of complaints for ‘Staff behaviour’.  218 out of 336 complaints regarding ‘Staff behaviour’ in 2019 were for Air India. 

As highlighted earlier, the trend in the nature of complaints changed in 2020 & 2021. A major share of complaints during these two years was related to refunds. 

In 2020 & 2021, Air India received the most complaints. In 2020, 3104 complaints out of 4768 i.e., around 65% were received by India.   In 2021, this share for Air India went up to 72% of the total 5380 complaints, which is 3868 complaints. 

The majority of these complaints against Air India were related to ‘Refund’ in both years. In 2021, complaints related to ‘Customer service’ of Air India have also increased. Air India accounted for 855 out of 1054 complaints about ‘Customer service’ in 2021. Further, Air India accounted for 300 out of 331 complaints related to Staff behaviour in 2021. 

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