Airport flight ticket sales under govt scanner for black money

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New Delhi: The civil aviation ministry has warned airlines, which were allowed to temporarily accept banned banknotes, that it will investigate unusually high sales of flight tickets after the government clampdown on black money.

Airports, hospitals and petrol pumps were allowed to continue accepting banned currency notes for some time after the demonetization move on 8 November.

Suspecting that people holding unaccounted wealth were buying air tickets using old currency notes and then seeking a refund in new notes, the government has asked airlines to sell only non-refundable tickets.

The civil aviation ministry got a tip-off related to ticketing at airport counters late last month, a person familiar with the matter said, requesting anonymity.

On 28 November, the ministry asked all airlines to submit details of sales executed at their airport counters across India for that day as also those for the previous days and the typical daily sales record.

One low-cost airline in particular saw its sales suddenly jump, the person cited above said. The person declined to name the airline.

Civil aviation secretary R.N. Choubey confirmed that the ministry has indeed sought the information. He did not say what action has been taken against the airline or whether a show-cause notice was issued.

“That I can’t reveal to you,” Choubey said in an interview.

The ministry has filed a complaint against an air charter operator that was found smuggling banned currency notes and a show-cause notice was issued to it, he said.

“We are watching. Not only the ministry, but all organs of the government are. Airlines found to be doing anything like this know they will be in deep soup,” he said.

The ministry has also issued instructions that PAN card would be mandatory for high-value transactions. Choubey said the income tax department will examine any suspicious transactions made during this demonetization drive.

“Whether there is anyone who has bought tickets in bulk without giving PAN card number, all those information will be given to I-T. Even if PAN card is not given, transactions are still traceable in this day and age,” Choubey said.

While there may have been an increase in airport counter sales in some cases, there has been a double-digit drop in overall ticket sales of airlines, especially related to discretionary travel, according to airline executives.

A second person aware of the situation said there could have been cases of illegal promoter money being converted to legal money at airport counters. “There has been talk of how some airline executives were taking suitcases to the airports on some days. The agencies will figure out the details if there is anything grey in it,” the person said.

Choubey said he has “alerted the airlines that they should be very careful”.

A third person aware of the matter said one of the loopholes that could be used is the so-called credit shell under which passengers can book tickets and cancel them and use the money to book tickets for others in return for cash.