New Delhi, Aug 22: Non-disclosure of terms for promotional air tickets amounts to an “anti-consumer” practice, India’s top consumer court has warned while penalising Lufthansa for harassing an elderly Indian couple who held an open ticket to return from the US.
The National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission pulled up Lufthansa for a non-transparent promotional scheme that left the couple from Karnataka capital Bangalore stranded in the US for days, forcing them to return home on another airline at their own cost.
It ordered Lufthansa to refund Rs.80,080 (over $1,400) to R. Bhaskaran and his wife Banumathy Bhaskaran. The couple was also denied a refund of the partially used tickets on their return to India.
Lufthansa “ought to have given the terms and conditions attached to the tickets as opposed to a normal ticket”, said commission presiding member R.C. Jain and member S.K. Naik in a recent judgment, granting a cost of Rs.1,000 to the elderly couple.
The commission pulled up Lufthansa for not revealing either on the tickets or by means of any leaflet that the tickets were issued to the couple under an excursion fare scheme or that no refund was permitted for partially-used tickets.
Bhaskaran and his wife purchased return journey air tickets from Lufthansa’s travel agent at Chennai and paid a sum of Rs.160,160 in August 2002. The tickets were valid up to February 2003.
The couple flew to the US Aug 8, 2002, but kept their return journey open for the period of the ticket’s validity till February 2003.
While in the US, Bhaskaran was taken ill and the couple decided to return to India and approached the airline in the US to confirm their return journey some time in the last week of November 2002. Their request, however, was declined on the ground that seats were not available till January 2003.
Unable to wait till January 2003, the couple bought fresh tickets on another airline
and returned to India Dec 1, 2002.
On their return, they approached Lufthansa’s travel agent for a refund of the unused part of their tickets. The airline rejected their claim for refund, forcing the couple to approach a consumer district forum.
Ordering a refund of Rs.80,080, the commission held Lufthansa liable and said: “The airlines ought to have clearly stated on the jacket of the tickets that the same were being issued under a special concessional scheme.”
“The air ticket is a document of contract between the passenger and the airlines and it has to contain the specific terms and conditions. In a number of cases, this commission has held that fine prints on the jacket of the tickets are most often impossible for a passenger to read and make sense out of them,” said the bench.
“In the present case, only code words have been used expecting the passenger to imagine the limitations themselves, which, to say the least, is totally anti-consumer. It is not open for the petitioner airlines to withhold some information on their records and not incorporating them in clear terms in the tickets,” the commission said.
The commission also dismissed Lufthansa’s claim that as against the normal fare of Rs.216,000 stated on the tickets, they realised only Rs.160,160 from the couple due to the concessional scheme.
“From a scrutiny of the tickets, photocopies of which have been filed by the petitioner (airlines) themselves, however, we do not find any mention of the normal fare being Rs.216,000. This clearly belies their claim or contention,” the commission said.
Bhaskarans’ complaint was resisted by Lufthansa by claiming that they availed themselves of discounted tickets under its “excursion fare scheme”, which was covered by certain specific terms and conditions and they were not entitled to any refund for the partially-used tickets.
“We are not convinced with this line of argument of the airlines for the simple reason that the complainants have totally denied that the airlines’ travel agent had ever informed them that the tickets were issued under any special scheme or that they were being given such concessions,” the commission said.
“The reference to the code word in the tickets, to say the least, is at best an information for the internal consumption and management of the airlines and a consumer cannot dream of the implications behind each letter,” the commission said.
(Rahul Chhabra can be contacted at email@example.com)