Getting away at peak holiday times has always been expensive as airlines take advantage of increased demand. But is this really fair, and can anything be done to curb airlines hiking up prices? Alvin Thomas investigates.
For 17-year-old Indian expat student, Jeslin, a fresh chapter in her life is fast-approaching.
All the aspiring engineer wants is to be accepted into a reputable university back home in India.
She completed her schooling from Indian School Muscat a few months back and passed her grade 12 examinations with top grades.
She just got a call from two top universities (one in Bengaluru and the other in New Delhi) offering her a place in her preferred field of study: electronics engineering.
But there’s a catch: she now must attend interviews.
She has to book a ticket to her hometown of Kochi, from Oman. And she has to leave on September 1 – the day of Eid Al Adha.
However, she cannot afford the RO190 airline fare.
“I cannot believe my bad luck,” a distraught Jeslin says.
“I have asked the colleges for an online interview but to no avail. I must fly there. We are trying to borrow money from our family and friends, now, in order to book two tickets (for Jeslin and her father, George).
Following the announcement of the Eid holidays (on August 28, 2017), however, many travel agencies and flight operators are claiming that they are booked out, or are offering increased fares, citing higher demand from passengers for flying out of the Sultanate.
“This is exploitation of passengers,” Jeslin says.
Desperate, the girl and her father book tickets with one of the international carriers.
In reality, Jeslin and her father George are only two residents – among many others – who are frustrated with this sharp rise in ticket pricing, and are calling for dropping the rates during peak travel times.
“We need to see a drop in the airline pricing, especially during such times,” says Martin, a British expat working in Oman, who says he had planned on surprising his parents with a visit, during Eid.
“This overnight change in pricing is nothing but a gyp. I feel that there is a definite need to increase the numbers of flights that operate during these sensitive days.
“Back in Britain, most airline operators come up with discounts and offer at least a few weeks before, if they know the demand is going to be high. This includes flexible tickets and small drops from the average peak prices that they offer.
“It all adds up, you know,” he says.
“Here, though, I remember the prices peaking even a month before I wanted to book my flight. And because the Eid dates weren’t announced, I had to wait until the last minute to get a ticket.”
Martin says he ended up paying RO640 for a two-way ticket to London, from Muscat, with Etihad Airways.
We conducted a quick investigation to compare current ticket rates with those of what passengers are charged during normal ‘off-peak’ days.
A return ticket to the city of Kochi (India) from Muscat, by Oman Air, costs RO307, as opposed to the RO131 that is normally charged during off-peak days; highlighting an increase of RO176 over the normal rates.
Meanwhile, to travel to the same location, Air India Express charges RO245; and Jet Airways, RO195, which is roughly a RO50 to RO100 increase from the usual off-peak days.
Surprisingly, you can opt for a flight to any other part of the country, from Oman, for less than half the cost. For example, a return trip from Oman to Mumbai costs roughly RO145.
Shockingly, we also learn that the rates differ by more than RO440 for a flight to London from Oman.
But, why is there such an increase to the state of Kerala, in India?
As it turns out, residents are celebrating its annual festival of Onam, alongside Eid Al Adha, this week. This means there are plenty of passengers opting to fly to the city.
One Keralite family of five are disappointed at having to cancel their trip to their homeland, owing to the price hike.
“Onam falls during the Eid Al Adha holidays, this year,” says engineer Suman.
“We were initially planning on visiting Kochi to celebrate Onam. But, we couldn’t book our tickets because we weren’t aware of the official Eid holidays. But, because we were given a last-minute notice about the holidays, we had to book it at a higher rate.
“However, we simply couldn’t afford to fly the five of us to and from Kochi. It was amounting almost RO1,100, and that is a lot of money to pay.
“I was supposed to meet my parents and relatives, and spend a nice time away from work,” the father-of-three points out.
Etihad Airways charges passengers RO210, for a flight to the city, during off-peak days. The reason for the hike, according to Sameer, an executive with a leading travel agency in Oman, is the five-day long break (August 31 to September 4).
This is also the situation of local operators flying within Oman. A return ticket from Muscat International Airport to Salalah International Airport currently costs RO63, a whole RO20 more than the regular rates.
Many passengers are opting to head to the green city, to escape from the city for their micro-holiday, and flights are being overbooked now, according to Sameer.
“You will not believe the number of people opting to fly to Salalah, this weekend. Because of that we have been asked to raise the rates by RO10, per side. But, this has not translated to any drop in the demand.
“Most of the people visiting Salalah are single tourists. It is definitely one of the more economic options; even when compared with travelling to countries where Omanis, Europeans and Asians can avail themselves of a visa-on-arrival – such as Georgia.
Oman Air is also offering tour packages in Salalah to holiday-makers. For instance RO179 will get you a three-night stay at the Salalah Marriott Resort.
But, in an effort to get to grips with the concerns of travellers opting to fly out of the country during mini-holidays, we contact numerous travel agents and airline officials.
So, in an interview with Y, Wasim Zaidi, the General Manager of (Indian airline company) Jet Airways, in Oman, explains the situation: “The whole increase in the pricing of tickets comes down to basic economics – the demand and supply theory.
“If capacity is still less than demand, then the demand needs to be managed.
“You see, during peak times –Eid Al Adha is one of them – we get substantial number of bookings. And this means, we sometimes have to accommodate a maximum number of passengers, with our existing resources.
“So, the people who require the tickets the most will opt for it. Of course, our goal at the end of the day is to make money.”
Jet Airways currently operates a total of four Boeing 737-800 flights to the cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Kochi and Trivandrum, with a total capacity of 168 (12 business class and 156 economy class) passengers.
Wasim then says: “You see, we only have a limited number of peak days, annually. This is when our flights are most likely to be completely booked out, and we may have to reap some rewards out of it.
“The peak days are a small percentage, in a year, thus the pressure to generate revenue is paramount,” he adds.
By definition, ‘peak days’ are the time of the day or season during which the demand for airline services is at their highest. If a person books a flight during this period, he or she will have to pay the “peak fares”.
However, the airline fares are said to shoot up to their highest two days before the closing on the bookings; these dates are termed ‘super-peak’ days.
But, like Martin asks, is it possible to increase the number of flights during peak periods?
“No,” says on official (who wishes to remain anonymous) from the Oman Airports Management Company S.A.O.C (OAMC).
“An airline who wishes to apply for more slots has to go through a strict process. You cannot simply add a flight to your inventory for a week and then decommission the flight.
An airport slot gives an airline the right to operate at an airport at a particular time. They are used when the airport is constrained, either by the runway throughput or by the available parking space. These slots may be traded and can be very valuable, especially during peak times.
In 2016, Oman Air purchased a prime London Heathrow Airport slot from Air France/KLM for a record US$75 million (RO29 million).
The official also explains that an operator also cannot switch its landing and take-off times, especially during peak hours of operation of the airport.
“This is a question of safety,” he says.
“We have air-traffic controllers looking at the safety of the passengers. We simply cannot give him or her too many aircrafts at once; it’s too risky, particularly if the sector has complex traffic, with crisscrossing aircrafts that need to climb and descend,” he says.
But, Wasim adds that Jet Airways was interested in operating more flights to and from Oman but due to the nature (timing, date, etc.) of the slots they received, the deal didn’t materialise.
In what is good news for passengers, however, Oman Air will soon begin operating more flights within the Asian subcontinent, after it takes delivery of the first of its Boeing 737 MAX flights. The flights are expected to begin operations early
In all 34 flights are expected to join the fleet over the coming years.
The airport official refrains from revealing any further information, but he says that it should definitely help ease the congestion of passengers towards their destinations.
“We are in the process of connecting our passengers efficiently. Once the new Muscat International Airport terminal opens its doors, and the new runways open to flights, we should be able to increase the number of flights to the country.
“This should ideally help ease the fluctuating prices,” he says.
“It will definitely not stop completely, though. You see, it is all business tactics. Airline operators have a set target to achieve, and they achieve it by charging extravagantly during these peak days.
“Is it fair? Well, no it probably isn’t. But, then your only way forward would have to be booking your ticket at least two months in advance.
“We cannot simply blame Omani and international operators in the country. This is the case everywhere. It is a business, and it will continue to run with its model. So, even if are to increase the number of flights taxing in our airports, the best we can do is stabilise the fluctuation in pricing between various operators, and not eradicate this phenomenon completely.
“It’s all about making the best out of a bad situation. Let’s take what we’re offered, and keep going on with our lives.”