The time has come for the Malaysian Aviation Commission (Mavcom) to consider establishing an enforcement unit that can take direct action against airlines, former Mavcom Aviation Development director Germal Singh Khera says.
In an interview with MalaysiaNow, Germal said such a unit would be highly relevant considering the global trend of issues related to refunds and flight cancellations as airlines across the world struggle to regain their footing after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lacking an enforcement unit, he said, Mavcom had only the authority to investigate and would have to go through the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) if it wished to take action over an airline's misconduct.
"When Mavcom was officially established in March 2016, discussions were held on whether the agency would need an enforcement unit," he said.
"It can be done, but there are many issues to be studied beforehand to prevent conflict with the enforcement by other authorities."
MalaysiaNow previously reported a series of complaints submitted by passengers whose flights were delayed or cancelled by airlines despite the reopening of borders and easing of pandemic restrictions.
In the US, several lawmakers had suggested that airlines be barred from offering flights if they do not have enough staff or cancel flights shortly before departure time.
In Malaysia, Tuaran MP Wilfred Madius Tangau said the issue should be brought to Parliament, to be answered by Transport Minister Wee Ka Siong.
MalaysiaNow has also received a flood of complaints about refunds from AirAsia and AirAsia X passengers, some of whom have been trying for more than two years to get back their money.
For many, their dissatisfaction is compounded by the fact that they can only communicate with the airline through its AVA chatline.
But Germal, who was once senior vice-president of international affairs for Malaysia Airlines and head of regulatory and airport relations for AirAsia, disagrees with those who describe Mavcom as "toothless".
For him, the issue must be viewed comprehensively.
He said complaints about refunds and flight delays were not unique to Malaysia but were happening throughout the world.
He is also confident that Mavcom is even now discussing the same problems.
"As a regulatory agency, Mavcom cannot act solely on passenger complaints," he said.
"It has to get a response from the airlines before coming to a fair conclusion."
He also recalled how Mavcom, in 2016 and 2017, had acted against several airlines found to have committed offences.
On June 13, 2016, it revoked the air service licence of Rayani Air after finding that the airline had violated the terms of the licence and lacked the financial and managerial capacity to continue its operations as such.
On Dec 20 of that year, it also cancelled the air service permit (ASP) of Eagleexpress Air Charter Sdn Bhd for failing to comply with the stipulated conditions.
On Jan 9, 2017, meanwhile, Suasa Airlines Sdn Bhd was fined RM380,000 after pleading guilty at the Sepang Sessions Court to operating without an ASP.
Commenting on the refunds sought by AirAsia and AirAsia X passengers, however, Germal said the airline's actions were "unethical".
He said every airline should have a unit to manage passenger complaints in detail instead of giving blanket solutions such as offering refunds in the form of credit or vouchers when passengers had paid in cash.
"Forcing passengers to accept vouchers even though they paid in cash is unethical," he said.
"But they have gone through a debt restructuring process and obtained permission from the court, so everyone including Mavcom can only agree."
On passenger rights, Germal said these had been clearly laid out by Mavcom and were mandatory for all airlines operating in the country.
"It's not just a guideline," he said. "It must be followed."
Nevertheless, he acknowledged weaknesses in that Mavcom, at the time of its establishment, lacked the strength to strictly enforce the rules due to a number of factors.
Because of this, he said, airlines might take advantage to do away with compliance.
"Before Mavcom came about, airlines had their own policies on refunds, flight delays and cancellations," he said.
"All that changed when Mavcom set out the definitions for each of these issues.
"The question is how Mavcom will ensure that airlines adhere to these rules, to protect the rights of passengers."
When Mavcom began its role as a regulatory body, he said, it did not want to exert too much control over airlines.
He said it would gradually scrutinise the conditions and regulations introduced and see how they would be put into practice by airlines operating in the country.
"It's been seven years since it was established," he said. "Now it has more experience.
"Perhaps the time has come to relook the suggestion for an enforcement unit."
But he cautioned that such a unit would not mean that Mavcom could do as it pleased.
"It would depend on the scope of the offence," he said.
"If the case is too big, it will need to go through the AGC."