Stranded Australians forking out thousands of dollars on flights trying to come home from India say they are being ripped off by airlines.
Desperate and frustrated Aussies have told The New Daily they’ve paid up to $40,000 to get home.
Others are stuck in a cycle of forking out thousands on overpriced flights, only for those flights to be cancelled.
Sadly, it’s symptomatic of the chaos the pandemic has created, a travel expert says.
About 39,000 people are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as being overseas and wanting to return.
Of those, thousands stuck in India have suffered one cancelled flight after the next, with many accusing major airlines of refusing to hand back their money.
Deb Tellis, an Australian teacher living in the city of Bangalore with her 17-year-old daughter, has been trying to come home since June.
Just as the pair were about to take a $4000 charter flight from Mumbai to Sydney, Ms Tellis’s daughter returned a positive COVID-19 test and they were forced into quarantine.
“Those tickets were non-refundable,” Ms Tellis told The New Daily.
In the months that followed, she has tried locking in a new flight with several airlines to no avail.
“I gave up on Air India. When they cancel, they’re not refunding,” Ms Tellis said.
A lot of people can’t fly because they don’t have any money left because they’ve lost it on cancelled flights.’’
For months, Air India has been facing a barrage of online complaints, with disgruntled customers slamming the airline as a “waste of your time and money” and others claiming it is a “huge scam”.
It comes as no surprise to Dr David Beirman, a senior tourism lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney.
“This has been a very common problem, not only for Australians abroad but also people who have booked here as well,” he told The New Daily.
“With the way airlines and so many parts of the travel industry are operating at the moment, the chances of you getting your money back from the service provider is pretty small.”
Dr Beirman said buying travel insurance was “vital”, as was paying for flights with credit cards rather than cash.
“Everybody has been struggling,” he said, adding it was likely that airlines in India – the second worst-hit country by the coronavirus pandemic – were doing everything they could to stay afloat.
“An Australian with cash might be too good an opportunity to miss out on.”
Liz Young, who returned to Sydney from India in April after spending an estimated $40,000, said she was still chasing $4300 from Air India, 10 months later.
Twelve hours before Ms Young was due to board a flight with Singapore Airlines in March, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi placed the entire country under a hard lockdown.
Her flight was abruptly cancelled.
Then, Ms Young spotted some available flights with Air India and seized the opportunity.
“Two days later, I got an email from Air India saying the flight had been cancelled,” she said.
“They shut off phone calls for weeks. I would have been in my hotel for four weeks before I had a response from them.”
Ms Young is among an untold number of Air India customers who bought tickets for flights that were never going ahead.
“They’ve outright committed fraud really. They knew they were in lockdown and I was an innocent Aussie thinking that if they were selling tickets, then I can fly out,” she said.
“The principle of it pisses me off because they took the money.
They were selling tickets knowing we couldn’t get out of there.’’
But it’s not just Air India that customers say is behaving badly during the pandemic.
Bir Dutt said he and his father are still chasing up $1750 from Singapore Airlines from flights cancelled in April and May.
“COVID struck (and) Singapore Airlines cancelled our tickets,” he said.
“Travel agents blame the airline, and the airline blames the agent. No refund, no return voucher given. We are still here!”
Dozens of stranded Australians in India say they are frustrated about the Morrison government’s strict caps on returning travellers that prevent them from coming home.
“I think the extent to which Australians stranded overseas have been treated and portrayed by the Australian government is disgusting,” said Peter Dunoon, a stranded Australian who is chasing money from Indian travel company MakeMyTrip.
“To be honest, I do feel I have been very blessed. But there are others whose lives have been more or less ruined by the circumstances created via the Australian government policies on returning citizens.”
Air India was contacted for comment.