With domestic airline operations resuming May 25, the Ministry of Civil Aviation issued a sweeping set of guidelines Thursday for air travel amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the guidelines are mandatory use of Aarogya Setu, face masks, careful monitoring of boarding and disembarkation with curbs on baggage, no food or reading material onboard, transport to and from the airport only in personal or authorised vehicles, thermal screening near the entry gate and web check-in.
Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri spoke to The Indian Express:
Why was there a delay in announcement of resumption of domestic air traffic in a phased manner?
Hardeep Singh Puri: There has been no delay. The decision to stop domestic and international flights was taken as part of the integrated and holistic approach of the government in response to the Covid exigency. During lockdown, no public transport – bus, railways and air — was allowed, except for some specific exemptions. Now, as the lockdown is being relaxed, transportation activities are starting. Domestic civil aviation operations will re-commence from Monday, May 25, 2020 in a calibrated manner.
What has been the experience of other countries which have similarly opened limited domestic routes?
Hardeep Singh Puri: The aviation industry, the world over, is one of the worst-hit sectors. Experience may vary, but most countries are characterised by a significant reduction in demand. Some of the countries have opened up the aviation sectors but there have been reports of less occupancy and even of empty flights. New protocols are being developed to facilitate passenger movement.
What was the response of the ministry/government to some state chief ministers who opposed the move?
Hardeep Singh Puri: This government functions in the spirit of cooperative federalism. The states have their views on resumption of public transport services. There have been suggestions from state governments and their sensitivities, to the extent possible, have been taken into account.
This is the first phase of opening domestic air travel, what can we expect in phase two?
Hardeep Singh Puri: It is an evolving situation. Conditions are changing on daily basis. The sector has to be opened up gradually and in a calibrated manner. We commenced a phased evacuation of Indian nationals, stranded and in distress, abroad. A limited number of flights have been announced. We intend a phased escalation, keeping in view the SOPs. After domestic travel has been eased, we can then, depending on the evolving situation, address the issue of international travel.
What problems did the fact that metros like Delhi and Mumbai were red zones and that they have the highest traffic pose in the phased reopening process?
Hardeep Singh Puri: The metros like Delhi and Mumbai are the worst-hit in the pandemic. These are also our major economic centres. They account for highest traffic movement and have been developed as hub for their operations by various airlines. The airlines will have to follow full protocols and operate as per SOPs.
Are the airlines fully on board with the operating protocols?
Hardeep Singh Puri: We have been regularly speaking to the airlines and all other stakeholders. Their views have been sought and considered while formulating the SOPs and protocols.
Who will bear the burden, for example, of leaving vacant seats given that the airlines are already facing huge financial losses?
Hardeep Singh Puri: We have taken a holistic view of the situation. Experts are of the opinion that even if the middle seat is left vacant, even then social distancing norms may not be followed. The airlines the world over have not gone for this option. The airlines are already facing huge losses. The commercial viability of the operations have also been considered. The economics of ticket pricing, in case of a vacant middle seat, would take air travel beyond the reach of general public. However, we have gone for additional safety protocols based on our experience of Mission Vande Bharat. The aviation experts have also opined that the air conditioning system in an aircraft is so designed that the direction of air flow is from ceiling to the floor which minimises risks.
What stimulus can the airlines expect from the government??
Hardeep Singh Puri: The government is having discussions with the airlines on a regular basis. We already took some steps to mitigate the long-pending demands of the airlines and aviation Sector. In January 2020, Fuel Throughput charges have been rationalised. The central excise duty on Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) was reduced to 11% in October 2018. GST rate on MRO has been reduced from 18% to 5% with full input tax credit from April 1, 2020. The proposal to bring ATF under the ambit of GST is before the GST Council which has representation from the states as well. Further measures will certainly be considered.
Till now, only 60% of the airspace was available for civilian aircraft movement. Now, these restrictions are being eased out so that civilian flight operations will become more efficient. We are also moving forward on the second round of Public-Private Partnership on six additional airports. It is expected that additional investment of around Rs 13,000 crore will be made by private players in the 12 airports in the first and second round.
What do you feel is the fate of the aviation industry globally in the Covid and post-Covid scenario?
Hardeep Singh Puri: Aviation is a highly capital-intensive business and it has been one of the worst-hit globally during the Covid pandemic. Internationally, many airlines like Virgin Australia, Air Mauritius, to name just a few, have gone into liquidation. We are the third largest domestic aviation market and were in the middle of a massive expansion. We were scheduled to be overall third largest market (pre-Covid) in the world. As the Prime Minister has rightly pointed out, we have to view this crisis as an opportunity. I am of the firm view that the Indian aviation sector will come out stronger in this crisis. In addition to Air India, the private players have also been participating in Lifeline Udan. Flying dedicated cargo planes have been a new experience for many of them.
What is the new normal for the civil aviation industry in India?
Hardeep Singh Puri: Indian Civil Aviation market is very dynamic. As the PM has rightly pointed out, now we have to move further towards self-reliance. We have already taken some steps so that the maintenance repair work is done within the country. As already pointed out, India is one of the biggest civil aviation markets in the world and was going for a massive expansion with one of the biggest order books for acquiring new planes. We still have only 8 per cent penetration and there is a huge opportunity for the manufacturing and the service industry. We are very confident that Indian aviation will come out stronger from this crisis.
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