How Air Travellers Are Deceived into Paying More Needlessly
Aditya Bhargava (The Leaflet) 16 November 2023
Using various techniques of web design, collectively called dark patterns, airlines and online travel portals are manipulating air travellers into paying more than they would ideally like to.
The pervasive issue of deceptive online practices in the aviation industry has come under increased scrutiny.
Approximately 10,000 complaints related to these practices have been lodged with the Ministry of Consumer Affairs via the National Consumers Helpline over the past eight to nine months.
These complaints suggest that airlines and online travel portals employ manipulative tactics, known as ‘dark patterns’, to mislead customers into making unintended purchases during flight bookings.
Such tactics have drawn sharp criticism, with some authorities even labelling them as cybercrimes. Rohit Kumar Singh (Consumer Affairs Secretary) even commented that in the current online environment, there seems to be a systemic practice of fooling consumers.
Recently, IndiGo, a prominent low-cost airline, has been directed by the Ministry of Civil Aviation to rectify its website.
What are dark patterns?
In 2010, Harry Brignull coined the term ‘dark patterns’ to describe deceptive strategies designed to enhance conversion rates. These manipulative UI/UX techniques trick users into taking unintended actions, often to the advantage of the business or platform.
By obscuring complete information about services and compromising users’ control over their online interactions, dark patterns can detrimentally impact the overall user experience.
In the wake of concerns surrounding dark patterns, the Department of Consumer Affairs (DoCA) has stepped forward with the Draft Guidelines for Prevention and Regulation of Dark Patterns 2023. These guidelines specifically address the manipulative tactics prevalent on e-commerce platforms. After seeking feedback, the Union government is currently evaluating the guidelines for finalisation.
The DoCA has highlighted 10 deceptive tactics:
1) False urgency, which manufactures a sense of product scarcity.
2) Basket sneaking, where consumers find unexpected items in their carts.
3) Subscription traps that make unsubscribing overly complex.
4) Confirm shaming, a tactic guilt-tripping users into certain actions.
5) Forced actions that compel users into unplanned commitments.
6) Nagging through relentless prompts for actions like sign-ups.
7) Interface interference, preventing users from tasks like subscription cancellations.
8) Bait and switch, advertising one thing but delivering another.
9) Hidden costs introduced just before a purchase is finalised.
10) Disguised ads, where influencers promote without disclosing their compensation.
Being astute or overstepping ethical boundaries?
IndiGo’s website tactics showcase how airlines can manipulate their interface to squeeze more money out of unsuspecting customers, often capitalising on their preference to avoid middle seats.
A recent survey by LocalCircles, a social media platform for constructive causes, encompassing 34,000 respondents from 308 districts in India revealed some concerning trends in airline seat booking.
Almost half (47 percent) of the total number of respondents reported paying for preferred seating in the past year, with 51 percent indicating they were charged additional fees for every seat allotment— a significant jump from 35 percent in 2022.
Business Insider noted ongoing consumer complaints about the lack of free seating options. Their study also suggested that 48 percent of passengers want a government-imposed cap, restricting airlines to charge extra for only 20 percent of the seats. Families, especially those with young children, emerged as the most affected group, as they faced fees to ensure they sat together.
By leveraging the ‘false urgency’ technique, the airline creates an illusion that passengers must pay an additional ₹99 to ₹1,500 to ensure they do not end up in those less-desired middle seats, even when there might be free seats subtly hidden in less visible areas of the seat map.
The ‘skip’ option, which should be a transparent choice, is cleverly under-communicated, leading many to spend unnecessarily. Their mobile application takes this deception a step further by almost camouflaging the ‘skip’ option in the top right corner with a minuscule font— a classic case of ‘interface interference’. Although the Ministry of Civil Aviation brushes this off as mere website template design, it is evident that such tactics exploit the customer’s desire for comfort and space.
IndiGo’s website tactics, though crafty, are not without precedent in the airline industry. In 2015, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) ushered in a circular allowing airlines to charge separately for select amenities, which include preferential seating, meals, lounge access and excess baggage.
Yet, crucially, the DGCA emphasised that these amenities should be offered on an ‘opt-in’ basis and be described with utter clarity “without any ambiguity”. But the question arises, are airlines like IndiGo truly adhering to this spirit of transparency?
When asked to justify their practices, airlines presented their case to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism, and Culture. They argued that variable pricing for seat selection was influenced by factors like legroom, proximity to exit doors for quicker boarding and deboarding and the choice between window or aisle seats.
They also pointed out that they do allocate seats to “all” passengers without extra cost; however, if a passenger wishes to switch from the randomly allocated seat to a preferred one, a fee is charged.
Yet, one can’t help but think, especially with the case of IndiGo’s web design tactics, whether these practices lean towards dark patterns or genuine customer service.
Prioritising a preference to avoid middle seats is one thing, but subtly pressuring passengers through interface manipulations and obscured options is another. With the DGCA’s guidelines in mind, it becomes evident that airlines like IndiGo might be stretching the boundaries of what is acceptable, by capitalising on passengers’ desires for comfort and their natural inclinations to avoid less desirable seats.
IndiGo’s is not the only airline under the scanner, SpiceJet’s approach serves as another eyebrow-raising example. Their website nudges passengers towards purchasing travel insurance, not through the merits of the insurance itself but by employing fear-inducing phrases such as “I will risk my trip” for those contemplating opting out. This tactic clearly preys on travellers’ anxieties, rather than informing them of the genuine benefits of the service.
MakeMyTrip, a popular travel booking platform, is also not immune to employing such tactics. Just as customers reach the payment gateway after finalising their bookings, they are met with a surprise: an added convenience fee.
Dubbed as ‘basket sneaking’, this practice might be seen as an attempt to capitalise on the fact that customers, having invested time and energy into their booking process, are less likely to back out over an unexpected fee.
For Indigo: Time for some turbulence check?
In an era where digital interactions dominate consumer choices, the onus is on companies, especially those in sectors as vital as air travel, to maintain a clear ethical stance.
While competitiveness in the market is essential for survival and growth, it should not come at the expense of consumer trust. Companies like IndiGo, SpiceJet and MakeMyTrip are at the forefront of this evolving landscape, setting examples— whether good or bad— for others to follow.
It is essential for them to understand that while short-term gains through dubious tactics might seem appealing, in the long run, trust and transparency hold the key to sustainable growth.
The DGCA’s intervention serves as a pertinent reminder that customer-centric values and fair business practices should be at the heart of every corporate strategy.
As consumers become more aware and regulatory bodies more vigilant, it is high time businesses align their strategies with ethical practices, ensuring a harmonious balance between profitability and integrity.
(Aditya Bhargava is a second-year law student at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. He has a keen interest in technology law and intellectual property rights.)
7 months ago
Even ICICI lombard is employing such tactics. I recently was forced to buy Befit cover during health insurance renewal even though it was optional add-on. Call centre employees told me that it is mandatory. Since when the add-on became mandatory? You cannot uncheck the befit cover so you are forced to pay for it. It goes one step ahead. You can avail of Befit cover only on their app. So these are ploys to take extra payment from customers.
7 months ago
I would like to bring one more online scammer "Money Control" . Just yesterday,18th November, I responded to a repeated email offer to subscribe to Money Control PRO at a Diwali Bonanza price of Rs.99 only after a discount of Rs.200 from the offer price of Rs.299. As soon as I clicked on the GET NOW button a page opened showing my existing subscription valid till May 2024. Proceeding further for payment, a page opened "Setup Auto Payments. Total Payable amount Rs.299. Amount Chargeable as per Plan: Rs.299 for every 12 months. Start date 29 May 2025 End Date 31 December2050." Having just been offered an annual renewal at Rs.299 and after cross checking with my brother on the interpretation of "For every 12 months" to mean annually I proceeded to complete the payment process through my credit card. I was dumbstruck when I got an email from ICICI Credit card confirming registration of Standing Instructions authorizing debit of Rs.299 EVERY MONTH TILL REVOCATION." Fortunately, the message also contained an option to stop the automatic payments, which I have immediately done and received confirming email from ICICI credit card having cancelled the authorization. Hoping that Money Control does not have any more tricks up their sleeves. I request Moneylife to add this Scammer too if and when they take up with Regulators. Also other members of Moneylife are also cautioned to be careful in dealing with Money Control.
7 months ago
Yes I totally agree. Indigo online platform is not a trustworthy. Indigo airline cheated me with very high fare Inr 89293 Mumbai to Male return for 3 of us. I booked flights on 17th September before travel date 8th November 23 and return on 12th November 23 under PNR no P3T8QE. Fare included charges under fictitious heads like BQ and HQ etc.3 of my relations paid Inr 54000 approx for same travel dates just before few days before journey date. Customer support guys expressed helplessness when I complained about incorrect high fare to refund excess fare. They said that fares are decided dynamically but willing to consider refund if I postpone my return journey by 1 day which is not practical. Again I complained in writing for which I received auto reply expressing inability. How come Civil Aviation ministry and DGCA is allowing airlines to make money by fleecing passengers. I will formally complain to DGCA if Indigo fails to refund part of excess fare looted from us. Pl guide what steps to be taken to get excess fare paid by me
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