The Kashmir Valley, which has witnessed its heaviest snowfall in two decades this past week, was cut off from the rest of the country for five days after slippery and dangerous roads forced authorities to shut down the Srinagar-Jammu national highway on Tuesday. The road, which is the Valley’s only land connection with the rest of India, was opened for one-way traffic on Sunday.
With a train link connecting the Valley with Jammu and the rest of the country still under construction, air travel was the only way to get in and out of Kashmir this past week.
This led to a surge in demand for airline tickets, which resulted in an astonishing increase in passenger fares for flights operating in and out of Srinagar airport. Tickets for flights to Jammu, less than 45 minutes away by air, went up to several thousands.
Similarly, the lowest economy class fare for a Srinagar to Delhi direct flight on Sunday was Rs 12,015 and the highest was Rs 21,262. For flights on Monday, the lowest fare was Rs 17,934 while the highest was Rs 30,912. Flights landing in Srinagar, from Delhi, were similarly priced.
The gap between economy and business class fares for flights between Jammu and Srinagar considerably narrowed. An economy class flight on a private carrier for Sunday cost Rs 14,140 while a business class flight on the national carrier was priced at Rs 16,465.
On social media, many Kashmiris pointed out that it was cheaper to fly abroad from Srinagar than to Jammu.
Another Twitter user pointed out that a Srinagar-Delhi business class flight on February 1 could be had for over Rs 1 lakh.
The heavy snowfall also hit operations at Srinagar airport, leading to some flight cancellations.
Touseef Ahmad, a resident of Srinagar who is currently in Delhi, wanted to return to Srinagar in the first week of February.
“When I wanted to book tickets, all flights were above Rs 17,000,” he said. “That is out of my budget. Now I am going to take an overnight bus to Jammu, and take a flight to Srinagar from there.”
Ahmad booked his Jammu-Srinagar ticket for a later date, which worked out to be cheaper. Thus, his bus fare, combined with his airline fare, cost substantially less than the fare of a direct flight from Delhi to Srinagar at present.
A travel agent in Srinagar, who did not wish to be identified, said that he had just booked tickets for clients flying to Jammu for Rs 19,900 a ticket.
The travel agent said that some state government officials questioned travel agents in Srinagar over the exorbitant airfares. He added that while airlines went unchecked “for taking undue advantage of the road block”, agents like him were left to deal with officials over pricing.
“What airline companies are doing is looting,” said the travel agent, adding that agents did not have any control over pricing, and only charged a nominal amount from their clients for booking tickets.
The surge in airfares is linked to demand. Apart from situations like now, when the highway is closed due to snow, air fares also go up during periods of high demand such as during festivals or school vacations.
Sanat Kaul, chairman of the India chapter of the International Foundation for Aviation, Aerospace and Development, said that the fares for flights in and out of Srinagar were excessive, and “there is a good case for some control over the fares”.
He said while other licensed transport such as buses and taxis are metered and legally not allowed to overcharge, airlines seemed free to do so. “Airlines have been opened up in the free market but other modes of transport have not been,” said Kaul.
Business as usual
Airfare surges are not unusual in India.
Within the Valley, members of the tourism industry have regularly expressed concern that high fares for Srinagar-bound flights had a negative impact on tourism, and demanded government intervention to ensure affordable fares.
Earlier, on January 18, the state government approached Union Minister for Civil Aviation Ashok Gajapathi Raju to flag exorbitant fares on routes in and out of the Valley, and asked the Centre to direct airlines to maintain reasonable fares.
However, ambiguity in aviation guidelines leaves little scope for government intervention in the civil aviation sector, which was opened up to private players in 1990-’91.
Kaul said though high airfares were excessive, they are “legal, in the sense that after privatisation, they [regulatory bodies] have not put a bar [on pricing].”
“It [restrictions on pricing] used to be there earlier with the DGCA [Directorate General of Civil Aviation],” he said. “In the DGCA there is a provision for what they call excessive and predatory fare which the DGCA is supposed to regulate.” But what is excessive and predatory pricing is not defined.