Air travel limps back to normalcy


The COVID-19 pandemic has badly impacted the Civil Aviation sector, which was already spiraling into losses. However, with easing of restrictions and by adopting smarter strategies, the sector is gearing up to take flight again, says Gauravi Patel.

The Civil Aviation sector in India continues its struggle to stay afloat in the post-COVID scenario. The lockdown and the restrictions on air travel affected the sector badly, not just in India but globally. The COVID-linked pessimism and potential health risks involved with air travel have led to the drastic reduction of air passenger traffic in India. However, with tuned-down restrictions and smarter strategies, the sector is gearing up to take flight in the post-COVID world.

In the second week of August, the shares of Interglobe Aviation Ltd., that runs IndiGo gained over nine per cent against its previous close on the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE). The jump was seen after reports emerged that IndiGo is in the process of leasing back 12 of its aircrafts. The rise also brought relief to the floundering aviation sector especially after IndiGo, India’s largest domestic airline, reported the company’s highest ever net loss of Rs 2,842 crore in the first-quarter earnings.

Changing air travel scenarios

To combat the coronavirus outbreak, all passenger flights were suspended with the announcement of lockdown on 25 March 2020. After two months, on 25 May, the government resumed scheduled domestic air travel and had allowed airlines to operate at a maximum 33 per cent capacity. In June, the carrying limit was raised to 45 per cent of their pre-COVID domestic flights by the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

IndiGo’s journey is synonymous with most domestic aircraft carriers that witnessed huge losses in revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Owing to travel restrictions, IndiGo and several other domestic airlines undertook several cost-cutting measures to stay afloat. These included laying off ten per cent of the workforce, pay cuts, leave without pay and even selling shares to manage cash during the COVID-19 crisis. IndiGo maintained its position as India’s largest domestic carrier by market share.

Plummeting footfalls, decreasing revenue

The recently-released figures by the civil aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) are indicative of how badly the pandemic impacted the sector. According to DGCA, a total of 21.07 lakh people travelled by domestic flights in July 2020 – 82.3 per cent lower than the corresponding period last year. Additionally, the ‘occupancy rate or load factor for five out of six major Indian airlines was between 50 and 60 per cent in June 2020’.

The Airlines’ passenger load factor – a key measure of profitability for carriers – witnessed a sharp dip in July 2020 owing to limited operations. The domestic airlines carried a total of 372.85 lakh passengers in the first seven months of 2020 (January-July), registering a decline of 54.84 per cent compared to the corresponding period last year.

In May, India’s domestic air passenger traffic reduced by more than 43 per cent on a year-on-year basis, according to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). In June, the fall reached 50 per cent despite relaxation of restrictions on domestic travel.

In terms of on-time performance (OTP) – determined by considering activity in Bengaluru, Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai – Air Asia stayed ahead with an OTP of 98.1 per cent, followed by IndiGo at 97.6 per cent. Air Asia MD and CEO Sunil Bhaskaran says, “Despite the challenging environment, we are excited to again take the No. 1 spot and set a new record for OTP among domestic airlines in India. This reflects our ability to evolve and leverage technology to drive efficiencies in the new norms of flying.”

Travellers worry for safety

Moving ahead, it’s not just the airlines but also the passengers that are adjusting to the new normal. The pandemic wreaked havoc in the lives of regular travellers who, in face of the stepped-up safety measures and mandatory requirements, dread the uncertainty and the risks involved in air travel now.

“I’m a compulsive traveller…so almost every month I was exploring new destinations. Before the lockdown, I’d take off on whim to the most obscure destinations. But now I am not sure if it’ll ever be the same again,” feels Bengaluru-based software professional Mantra Joshi.

“It’s not even about the mandatory tests and the paperwork involved. The risks are just too high. How will you even know if the person sitting next to you is not a carrier?” says Mantra’s sister and travel companion Vedika. “I have been following the news closely since the outbreak. Every day, I hear of a new symptom manifested by the COVID-19 infection. It’s simply crazy!” she maintains.

Safety guidelines for domestic travel

When domestic travel was partially reopened in May, the Indian government left it to states to decide quarantine guidelines for passengers landing at their airports. However, certain regulations were made mandatory for air travel. These include: Use of Aarogya Setu aap to help contact tracing; thermal screenings at airport entrance; no manual check-in counters and only web check-ins; limited number of bags for each traveller; safety kit for passengers including face mask, sanitiser and face shield; no in-flight meals; no in-flight newspapers, magazines, etc.; minimum use of lavatory.

On 1 August 2020, the Airport Authority of India (AAI) issued the latest state-wise quarantine regulations for domestic passengers (as of July 30, 2020) to address concerns regarding quarantine norms in different states. According to the regulations, thermal screening is mandatory for all passengers on arrival by all the states. Similarly, all domestic passengers must install the Aarogya Setu app mandatorily on their phones.

With each passing day, the government and the associated agencies are learning and issuing revised guidelines to ensure safe and risk-free air travel.

International travel in COVID times

For international travel, the regulations require all international passengers to undergo seven days of institutional quarantine at their own cost followed by home quarantine for one week. However, certain categories of passengers are exempted from the mandatory institutional quarantine but they have to self-impose home quarantine of 14 days. These include: pregnant women, those who suffered death in the family, those suffering from a serious illness, parents travelling with children below 10 years.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Maharashtra government on 13 August 2020 further relaxed quarantine norms. The latest move was to alleviate the stress of arriving at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA) and reduce the time taken by the passengers to leave the airport. According to the revised guidelines by CSMIA, “Concessions on quarantine regulations have been made for international passengers travelling because of an emergency and those who have undertaken an RT-PCR test within 96 hours of their journey. The initiative enables arriving passengers to fill the self-declaration form online at least 72 hours before their scheduled travel to be exempt from institutional quarantine.”

Repatriation flights bring back stranded Indians

Presently, only special flights to repatriate Indian citizens stranded abroad are being allowed under the Vande Bharat Mission.

The Air India Express plane that crashed on 7 August 2020 at Kozhikode airport killing the pilot, co-pilot and 16 passengers was a Vande Bharat repatriation flight from Dubai carrying 190 people. After the accident, the state-run airlines stated, “Due to crash landing of the flight, it may affect the network but Vande Bharat Mission continues.” However, even amid the rescue operation workers, the fear of contracting the infection loomed large.

Government caps fare to protect travellers

The Indian government has been proactive in ensuring the airlines industry provides safe, economical air travel to domestic passengers. On 25 May when the domestic aviation sector was reopened after the lockdown, the government capped the airfares for different routes.

“Everyone feared that whenever the air travel will resume, the airlines will increase ticket fares to justify the increased operational cost to ensure safety against COVID-19. The government initiative has helped a lot of passengers who were travelling for personal needs and emergencies. And now, even if the limit is removed, the competition will ensure prices won’t shoot up,” says Delhi-based travel agency owner Rashid Khan.

The airlines industry must innovate to survive in the post-COVID world. The silver lining is that most industry experts believe as surveys too indicate that despite the pandemic, most travellers will prefer flights over other modes of long-distance travel.

Gauravi Patel

Gauravi Patel is a researcher with The Inclusive Tourism Project – A DraftCraft International Initiative to document tourism, state needs and interests of stake-holders and industry players, balance issues objectively with local needs while ensuring inclusion as laid down in law and in spirit.