By Karamjit Kaur, Aviation Correspondent
AS THE popularity of budget flights soars during these tough economic times, customer service is taking a nosedive.
The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) said complaints against budget carriers are on the rise.
Between January and last month, 71 of the 107 airline-related cases dealt with were about low-cost carriers.
The total number of grievances is up too.
Last year, the association received 281 complaints against airlines. Of this, 157 were related to low-cost carriers.
Top peeves of budget travellers: unable to contact the airlines; being overcharged; not told of flight changes and cancellations; and refunds promised but not given, among others.
When political tempers flared in Bangkok earlier this month, communications executive Ion Danker and a group of friends decided to postpone their holiday.
Booked to fly on Singapore's Tiger Airways, they called and e-mailed the airline to change their flights but their queries went unanswered. In the end, they went to the airport to sort the matter out.
Mr Danker, 30, who paid about $400 for a pair of return tickets, said: 'In the end, we managed to book new flights for end-June, but now the airline says I have to pay a total penalty of $250.
'Surely in this case, the charge should be waived. After all, Thailand declared a state of emergency and Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs had advised travellers to Bangkok to postpone their trips.'
Tiger's spokesman said the airline's policy is to waive the amendment fee if the new flight date is within seven days of the original scheduled date.
There is no charge too if travellers opt to go elsewhere although fare top-ups, if any, still apply.
Jetstar Asia, a subsidiary of Qantas Airways, waived its amendment fee of $40 per leg during Bangkok's turmoil, as long as customers travelled by last Sunday.
The information, as well as the number to call to make itinerary changes, was displayed on its website.
When such things happen, many airlines typically allow a two-week grace period from the original flight date booked.
Apart from political crises and other such unforeseen circumstances, industry watchers expect that the economic downturn in general will lead to a higher number of complaints from air travellers.
This is because as airlines drop flights, cut capacity and revise schedules due to falling traffic numbers, not all carriers will be as effective in keeping customers abreast of changes.
When flights are rescheduled or cancellations happen, the consumer is in a 'lose-lose' position, said Case executive director Seah Seng Choon.
He said: 'What airlines should do is to inform the consumers as early as possible...and offer alternatives for the consumers.'
Compared to low-cost carriers, full-service airlines like Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are usually better placed to do this, with their wide network of partner airlines.
For Mr Danker, the lesson learnt is this: 'Budget airlines are great if all that is involved is booking the ticket, getting on the flight and flying off.
'But when something happens, everything is in a mess and it can be very frustrating.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.
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