A 20-minute chat between Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on Sunday seems to have paved the way for a partial resumption of flights to and from Mumbai, which makes up for a bulk of domestic air traffic in the country, besides some other cities in the state. On Day One, 50 flights will be allowed to and from Mumbai.
However, the Maharashtra government has not yet approved taxi or auto service in Mumbai and passengers will be required to make their own travel arrangements to and from the airport.
Till the time of going to press, airlines were unable to finalise their schedule. Mumbai’s schedule was being reworked. Tamil Nadu’s airports — Chennai and Madurai — hadn’t yet communicated to the Centre how many flights it would allow.
Airline call centres were flooded with calls from worried passengers as their flights were being cancelled last minute due to states reducing the number of flights.
Maharashtra government, which has been trying to ground the Centre’s flight plan due to a spike in Covid-19 cases in the state, had told Mumbai International Airport on Saturday that commercial air transport must not resume at this point.
“We believe passengers who have booked over the last two-three days will need to travel as soon as possible. Hence, we will be allowing free date change as requested by passengers,” said Vistara’s Chief Commercial Officer Vinod Kannan.
Besides Maharashtra, the Centre held back-to-back meetings with some other states through the weekend to be able to resume domestic air operations from Monday.
However, Kolkata and Bagdogra airports will resume business from May 28 as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had asked the Centre to defer flights due to the recent super cyclone.
Similarly, after opposition from Andhra Pradesh, which asked for more time to prepare, resumption of Vizag and Vijayawada airports was pushed to May 26. “It has been a long day of hard negotiations with various states to recommence civil aviation operations in the country,” Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri tweeted. Puri had on Saturday said resumption of flights will be seamless.
The Centre’s plan to resume domestic flights from Monday had run into rough weather, with many states suggesting at least a week-long quarantine for airline passengers and some others resisting commercial air transport altogether during the lockdown. The impasse threw schedule and network planning of airlines into disarray as flights had to be curtailed and schedules revised, following a high-level meeting that ended at 8 pm. Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola headed the deliberations.
Officials and network planners of airlines worked till midnight to work out the procedure and finalise schedules.
“After Saturday’s announcement by Mumbai airport, we were on standby to cancel all flights to and from the city. Then we were told that 45 departures and 45 arrivals will be permitted. Finally, it was reduced to 25 departures and 25 arrivals. We had to cancel at the last moment and inform passengers. Things should have been done in a more planned manner,” said an airline executive late on Sunday.
However, a ministry official defended the Centre’s move, saying states’ disagreement had more to do with political calls rather than operational. “We have to understand that the economy needs to restart and cannot be perpetually kept under lockdown,” the official said. Airlines said for the first day, occupancy of flights will range between 60 per cent and 70 per cent. However, despite attempts by the Centre, states haven’t agreed to dilute their quarantine guidelines. Almost all prominent states, except Delhi, have mandated quarantine after landing.
“This will hit demand further. On one Bengaluru flight, we just have 35 passengers,” said an airline executive. Only 35 per cent of the original summer schedule flights will be allowed in the first phase to maintain social distancing. Delhi airport, which has over 60 aircraft movements per hour, is allowing 14 per hour. Initially, airports will operate for a limited period against whole day to make time for sanitisation of terminals. Persons above 80 years of age will not be allowed to fly during the first phase, while wearing mask will be compulsory in airport and for the entire duration of the flight.