The Government of India has allowed airlines to unbundle their service packages and charge passengers for checked-in baggage, airline lounge usage, preferential seating, food and beverage, checked-in musical instruments, sports equipment and valuable/fragile baggage. Executive Traveller speaks to businessmen and women across the country about how these regulations would affect their travel plans.
Several airlines already charge travellers for food and beverages, preferential seating and sporting equipment. And you’re only allowed into airline lounges if you hold membership to their exclusive clubs – which you have to pay to acquire. Now, the government has given carriers the green light to wring fees out of passengers for checked-in and fragile luggage. The Ministry for Aviation claims that the move would “allow airlines to offer a low base fare to price-sensitive travellers, while allowing those who want more services to pay for these”, implying that to unbundle service packages would cause airlines to reduce fares. While frequenters of budget airlines may be used to many of these charges, the proposed fee for checked-in baggage and valuable goods has been drawing travellers’ ire. Many believe that this decision will only add to the chaos and draw more criticism to the troubled industry.
Hina Shah, President, International Centre For Entrepreneurship & Career Development, said, “I travel by air about once a week and I will certainly be affected by this decision.” She added “There is a tendency for people to think that everyone who is flying on business is on an expense account, but there are a lot of entrepreneurs in India who pay out of their pockets for tickets. But it won’t change anything. When you have to be somewhere for business, you just have to be there, and small changes in price won’t matter because you don’t have a choice. All that will happen is that there will be a lot more criticism of the airlines.”
Krishnaswamy Ajjampur, a travel consultant and the founder of Voyage World, believes that the move will hopelessly tangle the booking systems in India. “I travel quite often, and I think this move will only bring more chaos to an already chaotic sector,” he said, “I book online much of the time, but 50% of travellers book tickets through agents and if the agents themselves are unaware of what services need to be paid for, a lot of people will end up spending more than they intended. If you consider how much travel agents goof up on international flights, you will know what I mean. I don’t know how will they make sense of all the new services that have to be paid for. The airlines will just put things in fine print, and people who don’t know any better, will end up paying much more at the last minute.”
However, a few travellers hope that the unbundling of services will boost quality standards. According to Abhishek Dhingra, Director of Pronto Franchising, “When you’re served a meal on a flight and there is no dessert, you don’t say anything, because you don’t know what to expect from the package. But if you are paying for the perk of an in-flight meal, then you will demand a quality product. I think if the unbundling is done in a structured and fair way, there’s nothing wrong with it.”
Dhingra reserves his outrage, however, for the charges on checked-in baggage. “That’s going to really hurt,” he muses, “I travel between Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi very often and I think now, I’ll just commute by road in between Bangalore and Chennai and I’ll probably hop on a train to Delhi, unless business is urgent. And when I’m flying, I’m going to pack far more conscientiously.”
And he is not alone in his sentiments. Jefferey Prakash Crasta, the CEO of Crystal Clear Hospitality, is also going to take to the road for short distances. “If I am going to Chennai from Bangalore, I would prefer to drive down since there I will have to pay for my preference of seat on an airline. And when I’m flying I will not go to the airport for an early check-in to get a window seat. I will also travel with minimum baggage.”
Also on travellers’ minds, is whether this surge in the cost of flying will come with added value. “If there is likely to be an improvement in service, in infrastructure and in baggage handling, then may be these charges make sense,” said Dhingra, “But if all that’s going to change is that we pay more for our flights, which are already pretty expensive, then that’s just unfair and it’s going to be really painful.”
Airlines on the other hand don’t seem to be in a rush to talk about it. When we contacted Swaminathan Kumaraswamy, Deputy General Manager – Corporate Communications, Air India and asked him how unbundling of air services would affect air travel, this is what he had to say, “Air India is does not wish to make any comment regarding this issue. If we wish communicate anything to the public, we will do so through you and the rest of the media.”
Some professionals, however, remain hopeful. “In my experience several airlines internationally follow this practice of charging for preferential seats & other add-ons over the basic minimum services,” says Dr Kaustubh Nande, Marketing Manager at ANSYS Software Pvt. Ltd, I think in India budget airlines will make the most of this however premium airlines are likely to refrain or be very selective on what they charge the customer for.”