When the Government announced public holidays for the Renaissance Day and Eid ul Fitr in the last week of July, which eventually ensured employees a 10-day break from work, all the airline offices and travel agents across the Sultanate were inundated with telephone enquiries, while carrier websites experienced huge traffic as people made last-minute efforts to grab the cheapest tickets on offer to various destinations across the globe.
Most of the queries came from expatriates from the Indian sub-continent who wished to join their families for the Eid celebrations. Only a few could realise their dreams, thanks to the sky-high airfares. However, the exorbitant ticket rates cut a deep hole in the pockets of emergency travellers who had to shell out double, in some cases even triple, the normal fare.
Anil (an expatriate from southern India) had to face many anxious moments before boarding the flight to Kozhikode to visit his critically ill father a day before Eid. He logged on to the website of a premier airline, which operates morning flight to the city in the south Indian state of Kerala, to book online. The website turned down his request, citing unavailability of seats.
Anil didn't waste his time. He rushed to the carrier's office at the Muscat International Airport.
Luck didn't desert him this time, as the staff immediately handed him an Economy Class ticket at a premium price of RO 160 (the normal rate to this destination is between RO 70-80). A surprised Anil wanted to know the reason for non-availability of online tickets as well as the reason for the exorbitant rate he had to pay, but all he got was a meaningful smile from the ticketing staff.
Vinod, another Indian expatriate, too, had to shell out RO 240 (as against the normal rate of RO 120) to buy one-way ticket to Kochi when he went on an emergency during the Eid holidays. There were several others on emergency travel caught in the peak season rush who had to travel at any cost while airlines chose to remain oblivious of their genuine need for emergency travel.
The steep increase has obviously irked the passengers who feel the carriers fleece them during every peak season. While staff of some key airlines operating out of Muscat chose not to deliberate on the subject, a few airline officials justified the hike saying the pricing mechanism was based on the universal market rule of supply and demand.
There is a huge demand for seats during the summer vacation (when schools close), Eid, Christmas and New Year in Oman when expatriates flock to their hometowns. And while the early birds hop onto online booking well in advance to avoid last minute disappointments, there are scores of travelers who have to keep their travel plans on hold for a host of reasons, including official sanction from their employers, availability of funds, etc.
"We have three categories of fare structures (high, low and medium) for high season and low season in both the business and economy classes. The fare structure is based on the universal principle of supply and demand," explains Riyaz Kuttery, General Manager, Jet Airways, Oman. Amresh Choudhary, Country Manager, Air India, attested the same view saying, "Demand and supply decides the prices. When the demand is huge, the prices naturally soar."
As the common traveler sees it, however, it is not just demand and supply that determines the ticket prices. Airline companies, which adopt different methods to boost their revenues, too, play crucial roles in deciding the fares. A common practice among the airliners is to put tickets in different buckets in Economy and Business Classes. The prices vary for tickets in each bucket (normally, airlines float 10 to 11 buckets, each having a different price range).
If one assumes that a carrier has 100 seats available in economy, the first 20 tickets would be sold at the lowest rate (may be for RO 20) during the low season. It is called the lowest bucket, or lowest RBD (Reservation Booking Designator). The next 20 passengers would get tickets at a little higher rate (may be for RO 30), and so on. The last-minute traveler, however, ends up buying high-priced tickets (may be over RO 100). So passengers in the same class travel on the same flight paying different prices, though the onboard comforts remain the same.
Carriers offer more low fare tickets during off-peak season. But the scenario changes during the peak season, as airliners change the buckets to rake in the moolah. They may take off the first two lowest fare buckets and sell tickets at a starting rate of RO 60. In such a scenario, the last-minute buyer will end up coughing up as high as RO 200 (as against RO 100 during off-peak). And each airlines ends up playing their own tricks every season, none of which are governed, either by uniform pricing norms or permissible ceilings for fares to different sectors.
Dinesh Poojari, Manager (Travel & Holidays), Eihab Travels, observes that ticket sales haven't gone down despite the exorbitant prices. "Passengers have to shell out more money to buy the tickets. However, ticket sales haven't shown any downward trend all these years," he confirms.
The mechanism, however, doesn't find favour with a majority of passengers. "It is unfair to increase the price and fleece passengers during the peak season. People traveling in the same class pay different prices for same comforts. So there should be a mechanism to control the prices," feels Saurabh, an Indian expatriate who travels frequently to India.
Industry insiders say that tariff hike during the high season helps airline companies to balance their books. According to them, many companies struggle to find a balance between income and expenditure thanks to increase in aviation fuel price and the cost of ground handling expenses. When expenses increase, airlines have no choice but to pass the buck to the customers, they assert.
"Though International Air Transport Association (IATA) advises all the airline companies to sell tickets based on distance covered, it is not practical now. The sheer competition in the market has resulted in price wars as well as reduction in fares," says Riyaz Kuttery.
Amresh Choudhary puts it differently: "All airliner companies in the World follow the same plan, but execute it differently."
General Manager, Jet Airways, Oman
Many airlines keep their head above water during the low season. All carriers try to ensure at least 85 % seats are full during off-peak season. So high season offers the carriers a chance to make money and balance their budget. So, book your tickets early to avail the cheapest fares.
Country Manager, Air India, Oman
Airline pricing mechanism is a dynamic thing, and it doesn't have any human interventions. It is wrong to allege that airlines hoard tickets during the high season. Only last minute fliers end up buying the highest-priced ticket.
Manager, Travel & Holidays
Airfare goes up during the peak season, so passengers have to spend more money to buy tickets. But it hasn't affected ticket sales. Passengers will have to come to terms with reality and spend more. You can avail best deals by booking the tickets in advance.
Passengers find it difficult to cope with the increase in airfare during the peak season. It happens every year. I cancelled my trip to home during the Eid holidays last month as the ticket price soared to a new high. I think airline companies should stop fleecing passengers.
Is it hoarding?
Passengers like Anil believes that airlines hoard tickets during peak seasons to make maximum profits. "The carrier's website informed me that the flight was full. But I managed to get a ticket from the same carrier's ticket counter. This is a clear case of hoarding. It is a ploy to sell tickets at higher price at the last minute," he charged.
Airline officials deny the allegation. "Hoarding is unheard of in the airline sector. Ticket pricing is a dynamic thing. Prices vary from one bucket to another. Only last minute fliers end up buying the highest-priced ticket as they had to purchase tickets from the higher-priced bucket," asserts Amresh.
It is an undeniable fact that the pricing mechanism offers good deals for the passengers during the low season. "Passengers also benefit from the competition among the airline companies. Availability of better fare options help people fly frequently," opines Riyaz.
With the airlines offering tickets round the year, passengers have the option to book tickets well in advance. "Those who wish to buy cheaper tickets should plan their trip well in advance," says Amresh.
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