It was a long journey which A Rashid was not prepared for….
The suddeness of his departure unnerved him and his family. He still shudders when he talks about this flight to Dubai, last September. The 45 year old resident of Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad district was asked to cut short his leave and report for work in the supermarket, where he worked as a salesman. Having spent all his savings on the short lived vacation, Rashid was short of cash when his boss called him from Dubai.
After checking the fares of most airlines, a travel agent got Rashid a ticket for Rs 9,000 in Indigo Airlines. Little did he know, what seemed like a good bargain was the begining of a raw deal.
He travelled for about two hours from his home to reach Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. He soon completed the check-in formalities and soon settled down in the plush departure lounge, waiting for his flight.
Rashid resisted the urge to buy some snacks and even a bottle of water from the food stalls as they were all highly priced. He boarded the Indigo flight some three hours later. After the take off, the passengers were served a complementary glass of water. This was the only thing he got on the two and a half hour Indigo flight to Dubai. When the cabin crew started serving food and refreshments, Rashid decided to buy some snacks. Being a diabetic, he is advised to have food at regular intervals. He ordered a plate of Punjabi veg samosa. The snack was served to him. But when he handed over Rs 150, the price of the samosas, he was told that the airline could not accept the cash in Indian currency. He was aksed to pay in either UAE Dirhams or US dollars.
When asked what was the limitation in paying in rupees, he was told that their rules does not permit them to accept payment in Indian currency on international flights. He had to return the samosas, because he did not have foreign curency in his posession. His ordeal ended a little after the Indigo flight landed in Dubai. But by then his sugar levels had dipped and he was in a bad state by the time he got to his lodgings. He could not report for work next day, as he had to seek medical help.
Rashid’s ordeal is not a one of case…Many who secure employment in Gulf countries, mostly first time flyers, prefer low cost carriers like Indigo, SpiceJet and Air India Express. A good number of labourers who prefer to fly on low cost carriers prefer not to buy any expensive food or beverages served on board. Indigo’s policy of accepting foreign currency for all onboard services further limits those who would like to buy any food or beverage.
Indigo, India’s biggest airline by market share operates 12 flights to Dubai and Muscat daily from various airports like Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kozhikode, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram. On an average some 2000 passengers are carried by Indigo to these destinations in the Gulf countries. An equal number takes its return flights.
When we asked some of the outbound passengers about the reason for they not carrying any foreign exchange, the answer was more or less the same. Most of the first time fliers were not aware of the forex bureaus. Some said they did not remember to keep aside a little amount before encashing the foreign exchange at the beginning of their vacation.
India’s low cost airlines allows passengers to buy tickets in Indian rupees. They also encourage passengers to pre-book a meal, or pay for other ancillary services like extra bagagge using a credit card at the time of booking. Being low paid workers, most of these expats do not have any credit cards. But all were baffled by the fact that despite Indigo being an Indian carrier, why is it allergic to accepting Indian currency.
When asked about this, Sakshi Batra, the Communication Head of Indigo Airline was evasive. She said Indigo is a listed company with SEBI and its rules prevented it from sharing the details of the airline or its operations. She also further said they are not committed to respond to queries from the media.
Air India Express offers basic food platter for its international passengers without charging extra money. Passengers flying on Spice Jet have to pay for food and beverages. “SpiceJet accepts Indian Rupees on all its international flights. Our on board menu has the prices mentioned in all acceptable currencies. To avoid inconvenience to our esteemed customers standard universally acepted currencies such as US Dollars, AED, UK Pound and OMR are also accepted along with Indian Rupees conforming to competent authorities directives,” corporate communication Manager Anand Deora said in an email.
The concept of no frills airlines was introduced to target passengers who were ready to fly on basic facilities. These flights have less baggage allowance and charges for food and beverages, unlike full service carriers. Passengers complain, the budget airlines have also reduced leg space to cram in more seats.
India’s private airlines seem to have a free run. Most of the promoters are well connected politically.This helps them circumvent any directions of the civil aviation ministry or the regulator, Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
Lalit Gupta, the Joint Director General of DGCA’s office directed our query to SK Singh, Director, Aircraft Engineering Directorate. When asked why Indigo Airlines is not accepting Indian Rupees for its on board services, he said “DGCA does not look into the financial matters and it is the duty of either the Reserve Bank of India or the Finance Ministry or even External Affairs Ministry.”
An official from the Civil Aviation Ministry who spoke to us on condition of anonymity said that most airlines prefer plastic money. They want every passenger to pre-book their meals and beverages when they book the tickets. Over a period of time, they expect all passengers to pay through credit cards.
Another reason cited was the limitations in handling Indian Rupee. As per rules, cabin and cockpit crew are permitted to carry only a prescribed amount of money, a precautionary measure to avoid tax evasion. This is the reason why they prefer dollars or dirhams for on board services while flying to international destinations.
Lakhs of Indian’s are working abroad, mainly in Gulf countries. This is one of the most lucrative sectors for airlines. The fares in this sectors never go down even in off season or even now, when the fuel prices are at an all time low.
Its also ironic that the Indian government refuses to crack the whip on the airlines which fleeces the passengers, who send in millions as remittance.