The government is likely to open up the skies in a phased manner as and when the lockdown is lifted, officials aware of the plan said. The model is going to be followed for both domestic and international flights. However, except Air India, all other airlines are taking bookings on all sectors starting 15 April, as the direction issued by aviation regulator DGCA had banned flights till April 14.
India suspended domestic and international commercial passenger flights from midnight on March 24 for 21 days. However, cargo flights, medical evacuation flights and offshore helicopter operations were allowed during the period.
Resumption of international flights will be considered on a case-by-case basis after India's lockdown ends and will depend on which countries they are coming from, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said on Thursday. "Any incoming flights to bring Indians back home will have to await the lifting of the lockdown," he told reporters at a press conference.
“The top 10 airports in terms of passenger movement may be opened first, followed by those in other cities, and at last international travel,” a government official aware of the matter said. The idea behind this is to prevent crowding at airports and enable authorities to look out for passengers who might test positive for Coronavirus and take swift action accordingly. The top 10 airports in India include the four metro cities and Pune, Kochi, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Goa.
The official said many countries have voluntarily sealed their borders, so airlines would have to adhere to that. For instance, London has announced a flight ban till end of April. The US is also planning to ban air travel as cases in that country have been rising exponentially. "The government will take a holistic view. When conditions become safe in other countries, we can start flights," civil aviation secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola said at a press conference held on Zoom, a videoconferencing app.
Now, the Standard Operating Procedure being formulated by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) will make it mandatory for airlines to keep all middle seats and the last three rows empty to minimise contact. This means in a 186-seater Airbus A320 jet, that the country’s largest airline IndiGo flies, only 106 seats can be sold.
“While keeping the middle seat empty is important to ensure social distancing inside the aircraft, the last three rows will have to be kept empty in order to isolate a passenger if he or she develops symptoms mid-air,” said a government official.
Airlines will also be asked to minimise on-board services in order to prevent close contact between cabin crew and passengers. Pre-packaged dry foods will be kept in passenger seats prior to boarding, while airlines may also encourage flyers to carry their own food. In order to prevent crowding at airports, the regulator is mulling drastic measures, including a ban of duty-free sales.
Other measures will include boarding of only three rows at a time to prevent the formation of queues near the boarding gate or aerobridge. Airports will have to ensure two-metre distancing during check-in and security check. Indian airports will also be asked to make thermal checking of passengers compulsory and limit customer touchpoints. “Thermal screening of all passengers will be there for some time until the virus is declared controlled. Airports will be asked to take suitable steps,” a health ministry official said. Airlines will have to follow the guidelines till the World Health Organization gives an all-clear signal. Estimates suggest that the aviation industry may have to grapple with the stringent rules for several months after the services resume.
Industry executives argue that such stringent measures will make it unviable for the airlines to operate and may logically push up fares significantly. However, with low demand for travel, any drastic increase may be a challenge.
This is the first time India has effected a total shutdown of air transport. A similar action was taken by the US after the terror attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. The Covid-19 pandemic sent global air passenger demand plunging 14 per cent in February, marking the steepest decline in traffic since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said on Thursday.
Aviation consultancy CAPA on Wednesday projected initial losses of 3.3 to 3.6 billion dollars for the Indian aviation industry in the first quarter of FY2021 in the eventuality of all air services including domestic remain shut by June due to the coronavirus pandemic. Falling demand would leave Indian carriers with 200 to 250 surplus planes over the next 6 to 12 months, it said.