Airlines need to rebuild goodwill with fliers

Fliers feel short-changed with what has transpired in the past month, and winning back the trust will be a long process


THE Covid-19 lockdown and travel restrictions across the world have hit businesses hard and the event has not spared consumer interests as well.

Airline ticket holders stand out as many are probably looking at a total loss due to governments shuttering their borders for inbound and outbound travellers after the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic in March.

While the US and European Union (EU) regulators have generally instructed carriers to refund ticket holders in cash or in-kind for services not rendered, the Malaysian Aviation Commission (Mavcom) has said airline companies here need not refund ticket holders their monies as the flight disruptions are an “extraordinary circumstance” outside the airline’s control.

Mavcom stated that the containment measures, such as quarantines and travel bans, are national issues and something carriers have to abide with, after demands for cash refunds grew from disgruntled fliers and the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents.

The airline companies probably should have handled the matter better. The Indian government, for example, suspended all inbound visa at the point of departure on March 13 at 12GMT, which means if you had a ticket for the following days, it would be pointless to fly to the country.

The carriers, meanwhile, continued to send messages to ticket holders to check in on time.

Ticket holders are frustrated and feel cheated as many tried to contact the airlines via phone or their websites, but were unable to get through due to reasons only the carriers know.

A friend even went to a carrier’s service centre in KL Sentral, but was told to go to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang to get the necessary feedback on what to do next.

There, the service centre officer told her and other fliers with the same problem to write emails to the company and file the request via the carrier’s online customer support site which took forever, which was done only to be met with a rejection email reply a few weeks later on the grounds the request was submitted after the flight (past flight).

With EU and US carriers told to refund in cash or in-kind, travellers here are asking why the same thing can’t happen here.

Mavcom is seeking to wash its hands of the mess and has left it to the carriers to decide on the terms of any refund request.

The problem for ticket holders worldwide now is that almost all carriers are stonewalling after grounding their fleets and retrenching their workers or asking them to go on unpaid leave, as the companies go into survival mode and try to preserve as much cash as possible.

Local carriers like AirAsia Group Bhd and Malaysia Airlines Bhd are seeking government assistance to help them ride over the present period.

It’s a bad time for everyone. Everybody gets it. The Movement Control Order in Malaysia since March 18 has millions of workers worried about jobs and basics, like putting food on the table and paying their bills.

What is clear — local carriers will have much to do to regain some goodwill with fliers who feel short-changed with what has transpired in the past month. Winning back the trust will be a long process.

  • Bhupinder Singh is the corporate desk editor of The Malaysian Reserve.