India's embattled Jet Airways put photographs of smiling women employees on social media last week for Women's Day, using the tagline “Standing tall; touching the skies” but few passengers reacted cheerfully.
“'Touching the skies' is a good joke at a time when your flights are getting grounded,” said a respondent on Twitter, while others expressed anger and dismay at cancellations, delays in refunds and long response times to telephone calls.
India's second-largest carrier, grappling with debt of more than $1 billion, Jet has delayed payments to banks, lessors, vendors and staff. Lessors have grounded more than three dozen planes, forcing hundreds of flights to be cancelled.
Rising customer frustration could bring further disruption for the 25-year-old airline, as some flyers backed a boycott, while others blamed cancellations for ruining their plans.
“We had to worry about rebooking flights during our wedding, when there is already so much to do,” said Siddhant Agarwal, a 32-year-old businessman whose flight home from his honeymoon was abruptly cancelled just days before his marriage.
Agarwal, who is based in the capital, New Delhi, had to pay nearly twice as much for new tickets, he said. “They did not even offer an apology, which is disappointing and unprofessional.”
The airline, partly owned by Etihad Airways, said in a statement it continues to make adjustments to its flight schedule, keeping the regulator and passengers informed well in advance, and offers re-accommodation choices or refunds.
Jet said it is “actively engaged with its partner airlines and aircraft lessors, providing them regular updates on its efforts to improve liquidity as well as ensure operational reliability”.
Amid talks for a bailout led by state-run banks, lessors have forced the airline to ground at least 37 planes over non-payment of dues and some have also threatened repossession. It had 556 flights on average in January, down from 641 a year earlier, data from the aviation regulator showed.
Jet has planned cancellations of more than 600 flights in March, said one source with direct knowledge of the matter.
Monday's tally of about 330 flights compared with a daily average of nearly 650 in March 2018, a second source said, adding that short notice about grounded planes triggered many unplanned cancellations.
“The bigger worry is if people stop future bookings, because that will affect cash flows,” said the source, adding that cancellations in February and March outstripped prior months.
Jet Airways' market share shrank to 14.3 percent in 2018 from 17.2 percent a year earlier, even as India's aviation market grew nearly a fifth.
Some of the hundreds of aggrieved passengers who posted on the airline's Facebook page and Twitter told of delays on the way to wedding and festival celebrations.
Several uploaded screenshots showing telephone wait times of longer than an hour for a response from the customer call centre.