The Union government’s plan to resume domestic flights from Monday has run into rough weather, with several states suggesting at least a week-long quarantine for airline passengers and some others resisting commercial air transport altogether during the lockdown. For instance, Maharashtra has made it clear that the resumption of flights would not be possible during the lockdown. Following that, Mumbai — a key destination for domestic air travel — will fall off the network. It may be the same for Kolkata as well. The West Bengal government has said it’s busy handling the aftermath of the cyclone and would write to the Centre to defer flights to Bagdogra and Kolkata to May 28 and 30, respectively. Others including Karnataka have asked for stringent quarantine once passengers land, thereby restricting travel to and from another important business hub — Bengaluru.
In an official communication, the Maharashtra government on Saturday told Mumbai International Airport Ltd (MIAL) that till such time that it plans and fine-tunes airport operations, there should be minimum possible domestic flights from the state. It has further clarified that flights should operate only for medical emergency, students, international transfer of passengers, and other cases on compassionate grounds starting May 25, thereby ruling out commercial operations at this point.
After airlines raised concerns over differing and severe state protocols killing the demand, the Centre is working over-time to settle the issue . Civil aviation secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola spent all of Saturday communicating with chief secretaries of states to put in place a common protocol for arriving passengers.
States, including Delhi, said they were consulting with the Centre to come up with SOPs (standard operating procedures), which would be made public on Sunday.
Not just air travellers, states have said those entering via trains or road transport would also need to mandatorily spend 7 to 14 days in quarantine.
There is, however, no consensus among the states on whether passengers with no infection can be quarantined at home for the entire 14-day period or if they can be kept for seven days in an institutional quarantine until their test results come in.
“Such mismanagement and confusion will hurt us more. Demand for flights are already very low and comments by state governments mandating quarantine are affecting the demand even more. Since this morning we have seen people who booked tickets yesterday cancelling their journey,” said an executive of an airline.
However, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri on Saturday reiterated domestic passengers with no symptoms of coronavirus and a green status on the Aarogya Setu app need not be quarantined at their destinations.
“If you have taken a test and your test report is negative, following which you don't have any symptoms, I believe there should be no need for quarantine. The Aarogya Setu app is like a passport, if your status on the app is green. Why should anyone want any quarantine, " Puri said during a Facebook live interaction.
Later in the evening, on a similar Facebook live platform, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said his government would not rely on any certificates of testing from any part of the country or the world. He was referring to Punjab’s experience with those who returned from Maharashtra and Rajasthan, as well as more recent cases from Dubai. Those coming back had tested positive despite carrying medical certificates showing them to be negative. The Centre had announced earlier this week that domestic flight operations would resume from May 25 after two-month long suspension. The civil aviation ministry in its order on Thursday had said that passengers would have to adhere to health protocols of destination states.
Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, Mizoram, Kerala and Assam have said they would quarantine passengers, while Tamil Nadu has opposed resumption of flights.
Most states are willing to home quarantine those testing negative, but Chhattisgarh’s Bhupesh Baghel suggested at least a seven-day quarantine either in a government or a paid facility.
On Friday, a meeting of 22 opposition parties called by the Congress, and attended by three chief ministers – Maharashtra’s Uddhav Thackeray, West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee and Jharkhand’s Hemant Soren – agreed on a charter of demands. This included asking the Centre to “consult state governments while allowing international/domestic flights”. Sources in the Delhi government said they would need to consult the Centre on the standard operating procedures they would adopt, which will be made public on Sunday.
In a letter to Puri, Chhattisgarh’s Baghel on Saturday raised concern over resumption of flight services without any SOP. He said flights should be resumed only with strict and effective guidelines, and recommended 14-day quarantine for passengers. Baghel said further spread of coronavirus infection would be difficult to prevent if domestic flights are resumed at a time when the number of infected people have spiked.
The Karnataka government released its SOP for interstate travel on Friday evening. The norms suggest returnees from high prevalence states (Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh) coming via road, rail or air would be kept in institutional quarantine for a period of seven days and after their Covid test comes out negative, they should be sent for home quarantine for another seven days. Pregnant women, children below 10 years and passengers above 80 years would be exempted. In special circumstances, business persons visiting the state for urgent work like bids or auctions would be exempted from quarantine on production of negative Covid-19 report. The Kerala government is also amenable to such a provision for business persons.
Jammu and Kashmir government too will require incoming passengers by road, rail and air to undergo a Covid-19 test and administrative quarantine till the test result is negative.
Among others, passengers flying to Mizoram will have to obtain prior permission of the state government for travel.