The Jammu & Kashmir Police’s Crime Branch, which has been conducting an investigation into sudden surge in airfares, particularly in the Delhi-J&K sector, has found out a “nexus between airlines and unauthorised ticketing agents”. This, the police claims, creates “an artificial demand by blocking a large chunk of seats in a flight and thus ensuring a surge in price of the tickets for air travel”.
Senior Superintendent of Police Crime Branch, Kashmir, Javaid Koul told The Indian Express that the probe was initiated after the J&K government took a serious note of the “illogical surge in the price of tickets in our (Srinagar-Delhi/Srinagar-Jammu) sector” earlier this year and sought a probe. “The airlines aren’t cooperating despite several reminders. They are avoiding to hand over their records to us,’’ he said.
“The modus operandi is simple: these unauthorised ticketing agents book a large chunk of tickets without identifying the passengers. And as there is lesser number of tickets available in open market, especially online, the prices surge phenomenally. Subsequently, the ticketing agents sell these group tickets to individuals at higher price. The airlines allow the ticketing agents to identify the passengers at the last minute,” Koul explained.
Koul said they apprehend that this illegal practice is going on across the country and needs to be thoroughly probed. “It seems to be a secret agreement between two or more parties to limit open competition and gain an unfair market advantage,” he said, adding that the ticketing agents have to follow a procedure to identify passengers in a group ticket seven days or three days in advance. “They don’t do that. The ticketing agents sell their tickets after an artificial surge in price. It is only possible because the airlines accept it … ‘’ he explained.
In February, when air ticket prices surged leading to public anger, the matter was taken up by the J&K government. At that time, the Delhi-Srinagar air fare was between Rs 13,000 to Rs 17, 000. On February 5, Advisor to J&K Governor, Khurshid Ahmad Ganai, held discussions with tour operators and managers of various airlines. The J&K government was especially concerned because hike in air fare was “abnormally” high and “wasn’t commensurate with the actual level demand”. “After complaints that steep rise in air fares each time road connectivity closes during winters and even during tourist season and there was wrong doing, we asked Crime branch to look into it,’’ Ganai told The Indian Express. Governor Satya Pal Malik raised this issue during his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi then.
Crime Branch sleuths have already questioned around 20 ticketing agents and airline sales staff in J&K. “The airlines have a set procedure to choose a ticketing agent. There are elaborate rules and regulations. The ticketing agents have to be IATA certified. But the airlines don’t follow any procedure and are doing business with any unauthorised person flouting rules. Apart from defrauding public through this process, it is also a security risk. Anybody can become a ticketing agent,’’ he said.
On February 9, Koul said, the Crime Branch Kashmir wrote to all the airlines operating in routes to Delhi-Srinagar and Jammu-Srinagar — Go Air, IndiGo, Spice Jet, Air Asia, Air Vistara and Air India — seeking the records of their booking, etc. “We sent several reminders. They haven’t responded till now,’’ he said. On February 18, the Crime Branch Kashmir sent six investigating officers to Srinagar airport, who spent the entire day monitoring the airline counters and recording statements of the staff and travellers.
On March 5, Crime Branch wrote to DGCA’s Deputy Director Rohit Thakur, seeking intervention in the case. The Crime Branch has also written to Joint Secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation, Usha Padhee, apprising the ministry of this “serious issue”. A senior DGCA official said that the regulator had not received any communication. “In any case, we will explore if something can be done,” the official said on condition of anonymity. Padhee did not respond to an SMS query. Responding to a set of queries sent by The Indian Express, IndiGo said: “…we have not received any such communication at our end.” Queries sent to Vistara, Air India, GoAir, SpiceJet and AirAsia India did not elicit any response.