Now everyone can fly, reads Air Asia’s tagline. But the problem is, no one wants to, if they have a choice. Because the only thing ‘Red, Hot and Spicy’ is a pandemic, not SpiceJet.
One of the first to feel the aftershocks of the coronavirus, the airline industry slowly came to a halt in 2020. No one wanted to ‘Go Indigo’ or ‘Fly the new feeling’ with Vistara. One by one, countries around the world, including India, shut air travel in an attempt to contain the virus spread.
And when aeroplanes were allowed to take off again this week during Lockdown 4.0, not many could buy tickets. A man in Mumbai, who hadn’t earned since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pop-lockdown in March, had to sell his goats to buy a ticket to West Bengal. There was chaos and long queues at the airports. Several flights were cancelled. Inside the planes, a whole other story was taking off — that of Indian jugaad. Passengers wore bike helmets and hazmat suits. And some said entering the plane was like “checking into ICU”.
That’s why air travel is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week. A piece of the ‘normalcy’ jigsaw puzzle trying to fit back into place after months.
Boarding flight from chaos, landing in quarantine
For most Indian airlines and states, the Modi government’s decision to resume flights from 25 May came like an unexpected jolt.
The airlines scrambled to prepare, sanitise, arrange crews and sell tickets. Having learnt very few lessons from the imposition of the lockdown, even the restarting was botched up. Many top executives of airlines, reported Bloomberg, came to know of the decision only through Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri’s tweet.
The states, yet again, hadn’t been consulted in time, so each state went about making its own rules and regulation. Some, such as West Bengal and Maharashtra, demanded that the Centre postpone air travel for a few days, others such as Karnataka imposed 7-day ‘institutional quarantine’ on passengers coming from high-risk states, and Mizoram has decided to only allow entry to state residents. Punjab is taking swab tests on arrival.
So, on 25 May, out of the total 1,100 flights, nearly half had to be cancelled. Puri said ‘532 flights carried 39,231 passengers’ on the first day. Now, the aviation ministry has revised the figure and said only 438 flights took off Monday. The price of plane tickets was capped between Rs 2,000 and Rs 18,600, depending on the duration. And in-flight food and magazines were stopped. It was a wonky ride.
My colleagues Angana Chakrabarti and Yim Longkumer travelled to Assam from Delhi this week and had to fill a detailed self-declaration form and take swab tests upon landing.
India plans to restart limited international travel before August. For now, only people testing Covid-positive and living in containment zones are restricted from flying.
India’s silent airports, which had been literally silent for months, and skies are buzzing again. But worldwide, the coronavirus lockdowns had grounded almost 16,000 passenger planes. Keeping them in a functional condition takes a lot of money and parking space, the scale of which the world hasn’t dealt with.
And like 9/11 changed how we flew, Covid is doing so too. More automation, low-touch systems are being put in place at the airports. Security checks at Delhi’s T3 terminal no longer includes heavy patting, but a scanner with a long handle. Suspicion at airports is no longer limited to funny baggage and behaviour, but extends to coughing and the result displayed on temperature guns. Now, health checks will be as important as security checks.
Meanwhile, Boeing Co. and Airbus SE, both hit by the pandemic and financial crunch, are studying how to prevent disease transmission inside a plane.
Flight crews are wearing overalls and masks, and many airlines claim their cabin air is being recycled every few minutes.
But the safety and future of airlines are not the only problems. There is a very real human cost on the ground too — airlines are laying off workers like never before. GoAir is going to furlough 90 per cent of its staff strength. SpiceJet is paying part salaries based on the number of hours put in. IndiGo announced salary cuts for senior employees and a leave-without-pay programme.
And those who still have their jobs, are risking Covid-19. Five Air India pilots, who had flown medicine and equipment between India and China, have tested positive. Since Monday, 12 passengers in different IndiGo flights have tested positive.
Prepare for takeoff
The only optimistic section of the air travel industry has been that of ticket sellers. Airlines and websites have been selling tickets in the lockdown, even against government instructions.
As soon as Puri announced the resumption of commercial flights, travel agents saw tickets getting sold like hotcakes. EaseMyTrip sold more than Rs 10 crore in tickets since last Thursday. Demand has reportedly surged to more than 30-40 per cent of “pre-Covid” average. Delhi and Mumbai are still top destinations. And most Indians are buying one-way trips.
Meanwhile, India has entered the top 10 countries to be worst-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with over 1.70 lakh cases.
Air travel has certainly increased the risk of spike in coronavirus cases and the spread of the disease. But then, it is also the quickest way to reach home — Vande Bharat or not.
For now, the Modi government has turned on the air-travel sign for India. Cabin crew, coronavirus, chaos, please prepare for take-off.
Views are personal.