Hundreds of worried SpiceJet fliers booked to travel on the budget airline two months from now reached out to travel operators on Saturday, a day after India's aviation regulator curtailed its flight capacity by 186 slots and temporarily barred it from accepting bookings in excess of 30 days.
According to travel agents, the panic queries were diverted towards them as the airline's call centre allegedly became incommunicado on Saturday.
"Majority of SpiceJet passengers wished to know if they would get full refund on cancellation of flights scheduled to operate in mid-January," said Anup Kanuga, owner of Bathija Travels in South Mumbai.
Passengers' concerns stemmed from the fear of spending nearly double even if the airline gave them full refund closer to the date of travel, added Kanuga.
"These passengers have got the low-price tickets. The cost of the same journey a day or two before the schedule date of travel could be double the price."
In fact a small section of such fliers booked themselves on another airline to be safe. "Even if they let go off the cancellation charges on the alternative ticket it would be cheaper than paying sky-high spot fares," said another travel operator requesting anonymity.
The SpiceJet spokesperson said the airline was paying 100% refund for every cancelled flight within an average of 10 days.
"We have asked our travel partners to follow the same procedure," said the spokesperson.
Catering to nearly one out of five domestic fliers in India until September, the loss-making airline's daily flights fell from 339 to 232 within a span of a month.
Industry experts saw little hope of recovery for the airline even as it slammed the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA's) directive as 'severe'.
"Surprised with DGCA's directive especially about slots and constraints on forward bookings. This is in complete contrast to the kind of flexibility and accomodation shown to Kingfisher Airlines particularly in the last 12-18 months of operations," said Kapil Kaul, chief excutive officer, South Asia with Centre of Aviation (CAPA), an aviation think-tank.
He added the DGCA's monitoring safety concerns and passengers' interest was good but cancellation of slots was unfair.
"It could hurt potential investor confidence and lead to further downslide," he added.
Even as some experts felt that an immediate investment of Rs 1000 could give Spicejet some time to recover there were slim chances for such a 'miracle', they said.
"Although Spicejet is in much better shape as compared to the defunct Kingfisher Airlines the existing industry environment has put it on a slippery slope," said Debayan Sen, country manager and director, Lundrum and Brown Worldwide Services, an aviation consultancy firm.
He added even strategic investors such as Gulf carriers for instance would not 'have the appetite for such an investment'.
The airline on Saturday said that it would contest the ban on future bookings.
"SpiceJet believes this restriction will be counter-productive, and will be discussing the pros and cons of this cooperatively with the DGCA," read a media statement issued by the airline.
It also claimed that the cancellation of slots were a 'natural process' as it had cut down its Boeing 737 fleet from 37 to 22.
DGCA cracks the whip
DGCA has cracked the whip on media baron Kalanithi Maran-controlled SpiceJet on Friday, cancelling the 186 “slots” and barring the carrier from offering bookings for more than a month’s advance.
This means, for instance, if a person wants to book a ticket on Saturday (December 6, 2014), SpiceJet can offer a seat only for travel by January 5, 2014. Besides, the cancellation of slots also means that the airline will be able to offer far fewer seats even for future travel.