Above: The exorbitant fares charged by Air India for tickets booked by government employees under the LTC scheme opens up avenues for their misuse
As an indirect subsidy to cash-strapped Air India, the government continues to shell out as much as three times the normal fares for its employees availing of LTC
~By Ashok Damodaran
If you are a resident of Delhi and want to take your family of four on a holiday to the Andamans,
chances are that you will log on to one of the travel websites and search for a package that suits your budget. You are neither a high-end tourist nor a backpacker and more likely to wrangle a package, flight and room included, for about Rs 30,000 per head for a five-day-four-night stay.
Now suppose a friend, a government servant, wants to join you with his family on the holiday and wants to utilise his Leave Travel Concession (LTC) before the block year draws to a close. Government rules stipulate, except in exceptional cases, that its staff and families using LTC can travel only by Air India and that too, in economy at fares listed in the LTC rate list. What’s more, they must buy their tickets directly from the airline or by using any of the three authorised travel agents of the government—M/s Balmer Lawrie and Company, M/s Ashok Tours and Travels and IRCTC.
Every day, hundreds of tourists arrive in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from all over the country to spend a few fun-filled days under clear blue skies on the silver beaches of the tropical paradise. But thanks to government rules, a passenger arriving by Air India may end up paying twice what the person sitting next to him on the same flight does and three times what a passenger on a low-cost carrier (LCC) has for the same route. Thus, if a person has booked an LCC in May-end for a ticket costing Rs 12,500, the same may cost Rs 21,000 on the national carrier, but, shockingly, Rs 57,400 for a government servant who has availed his LTC.
Every month, Air India puts out a chart that details the prices of tickets on various sectors for the benefit of those intending to avail LTC. Even a cursory glance suggests they are exorbitant compared to Air India seats on popular travel websites and ridiculously high compared to private airlines. For example, a Delhi-Bengaluru two-way ticket for travel on May 31 and return on June 5 on private airlines costs Rs 7,800 on travel portals, while Air India’s best tickets come at Rs 13,000. But just a to and fro ticket for a government babu who is availing his LTC and flying Air India on the same dates will cost nothing less than Rs 38,000.
The story gets repeated across virtually all sectors that the national carrier flies to. Take an LCC flight from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram—one of the longest flights in the domestic sector. This will cost Rs 10,700 on IndiGo, Rs 14,000 on Air India and Rs 41,000 for LTC travellers. A two-way ticket on the Mumbai–Aurangabad sector, 335 km apart, costs Rs 5,500 on LCCs, Rs 15,000 on AI and a whopping Rs 42,000 for the LTC traveller. It is easy to understand why nobody is complaining about these exorbitant rates. The babu doesn’t pay for it. Rather, his employer, the government, does.
Former Director General of Civil Aviation Kanu Gohain told India Legal: “This is an indirect subsidy which does nothing but show that Air India’s revenues are high. The government is the loser ultimately.”
There are about 50 lakh central government employees who avail of LTC and government guidelines strictly require them to “maintain absolute integrity at all times. Ministries and departments should therefore not hesitate to take severe action against employees guilty of deliberate malpractices, particularly in collusion with travel agents etc”. This is as per a memorandum issued by the department of personnel and training some years back after a newspaper reported massive LTC frauds. The CBI was also roped in to probe hundreds of cases of fake travel bills.
There has been a demand that the national carrier charge the same fares for LTC as its regular fares. This is because of a strong belief that as its LTC fares are higher than routine for the same flight, it encourages misuse of this facility. There is no reason why these tickets should be priced higher simply because the government is paying them.
Similarily, there is a clamour for elimination of the three official travel agencies, all government-owned, who have been tasked with selling LTC tickets. At a time when booking a flight is just a click away, what is the need for a travel agent, particularly when one of the major suspects in the LTC scam that the CBI is investigating is a travel agency.
Such inflated fares are nothing more than another indirect subsidy for the cash-strapped airline which has accumulated losses of about Rs 50,000 crore and continues to bleed.