The Supreme Court Wednesday asked the Centre to clarify whether it is willing to give complete refund of air tickets booked for travel during the COVID-19 lockdown. A bench headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan referred to a recent affidavit filed before it by the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) saying that ticket booked for travel during the lockdown period will be refunded.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the bench, also comprising Justices R S Reddy and M R Shah, that suppose a ticket was booked on March 15, that is before the lockdown period, then also full refund would be given. However, Mehta said that he would file an additional affidavit clarifying the position in this regard.
"As per my understanding, even before the lockdown suppose a ticket was booked on March 15 for travel during the period of lockdown and the flight was cancelled, complete refund may be given," he said.
Mehta said if a ticket was booked for travel from a foreign country to another offshore nation, then it is not in the hands of the government to refund the ticket amount.
He said the government has proposed refund of amount for tickets booked during the COVID-19 lockdown for domestic or international travel within the lockdown period and they have tried to ensure that airlines don’t suffer due to this. Mehta said the proposal for ticket refund has to be approved by the apex court.
"Central government has taken a decision but the court has to approve it. Government has decided to refund the amount for the tickets," he told the court, adding, "We have tried to ensure that airline also don’t suffer."
The top court was hearing a plea which has raised the issue of air ticket refund owing to cancellation of flights due to COVID-19 induced lockdown which had commenced from March 25. The DGCA, in its affidavit filed recently in the top court, has said that full refund shall be provided by airlines immediately for tickets booked during the COVID-19 lockdown for domestic or international travel within the lockdown period.
It has said that for all other cases, the airlines shall make all endeavors to refund the collected amount to the passenger within 15 days. During the hearing conducted through video-conferencing on Wednesday, Mehta said that there are three categories and for domestic travel ticket, every airline has to refund which is irrespective of the date.
Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for Spicejet, said they agree with the stand of the government. Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Indigo, said, "We also agree with the Centre’s proposal and have only one or two issue for which two-three days be given. Then we will hear it some other day. You all file response to the affidavit, the bench said."
Advocate Neela Gokhale, representing travel agent association, said that their funds have been stuck as no refunds were given by the airlines.
"We have consulted all stakeholders including ticket agents before finalising the proposal," the solicitor general said. The bench told Mehta that he can also file an additional affidavit if he want to clarify something.
"I will like to clarify on the point of date of booking of tickets as suggested by the court," Mehta said. The bench observed, Flights were cancelled and all aspects are needed to be considered. You consider everything. The apex court has posted the matter for hearing on September 23.
During the hearing, senior advocate C A Sundaram, appearing for passengers association, told the bench that they have impleaded all the airlines in the matter as told the apex court earlier. Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde, who also appeared in the matter, said that relief should not be limited to people who had booked ticket during the first lockdown period.
He said many people had booked tickets earlier but the flights were cancelled so relief should be irrespective of the date of booking and should not be limited to the lockdown period. Sundaram said that there should be full refund of the ticket.
In its affidavit, the DGCA has said that after various rounds of deliberations between the stakeholders including the airlines, they have arrived at a proposed workable solution keeping in view the interests of both passengers as well as companies.
"If the tickets have been booked during the first lockdown period, that is March 25, to April 14, 2020 for the journeys to be undertaken in both first and second lockdown period that is from March 25 to May 3, 2020, in all such cases, full refund shall be given by the airlines immediately (this is being mandated vide MoCA’s OM dated April 16, 2020 as the airlines were not supposed to book such tickets)," it said.
On June 12, the top court, while hearing a PIL filed by NGO ’Pravasi Legal Cell’, had asked the Centre, the DGCA and the airlines to discuss and work out modalities for full refund of tickets for domestic and international flights which were cancelled following the COVID-19 lockdown. The aviation regulator, in its affidavit, has said that if airlines are not able to refund the amount on account of financial distress, they shall provide a credit shell equal to the amount of fare collected and this shall be issued in the name of the passenger who has booked the ticket for domestic travel directly or through an agent including online platforms.