Comtel Air charter foul-up: One more reason to exercise caution in choice of airline

THE Comtel Air charter incident in Vienna early this week is one more reason for air travellers to be cautious in making what otherwise might turn out to be penny-wise-pound-foolish decisions.

Hundreds of passengers travelling from Amritsar (India) to Birmingham (UK) were stranded in Vienna for six hours when the plane made a fuel stop – until they could muster up enough money to pay for the fuel. A crew member apparently told the passengers: “If you want to go to Birmingham, you have to pay.”

Passengers were herded out to cash machines to raise the money – each paying as much as GBP130 (US$205). In an Associated Press report, passenger Dalvinder Batra was quoted as saying: “It is absolutely disgusting.”

Hence, some people that I know will avoid going on the cheapest or extremely low alternatives if they can help it – for the peace of mind, not that the more reputable airlines are not subject to unforeseen flight delays or cancellations. It’s a matter of the odds.

Comtel Air majority shareholder Bhupinder Kandra told the Associated Press that the travel agents had not paid the airline before the plane took off from Amritsar. “This is not my problem,” he said. “The problem is with the agents.”

Caveat emptor, you might say. Is it a problem between the travel agents and the passengers, or that between the travel agents and Comtel Air? It raises the question as to what travel agents are really selling and if that – including the risks – is clearly understood by their customers.

This was not the first time that travel agents or an airline faulted, leaving their customers high and dry. Unfortunately, passengers who had already paid their fare could do little else but to make costly alternative arrangements and forget about reimbursement. Remember Hong Kong-based Oasis Airlines that folded up its wings in1996? Until today, passengers who had filed claims are still waiting.

Clearly, passengers need protection. Perhaps, in the same manner that governments today are introducing measures to protect the customers of financial houses that may go bust, they can afford some comfort to air travellers to know that in the event that an airline or its charterer becomes bankrupt, there is a reasonable reserve set aside for compensation.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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