Aircraft queue up on the tarmac before taking off at Mumbai airport. Photo: AFP

After grounding flights for two months, a measure taken as part of India’s lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the government has decided to open up the country’s airspace for domestic passenger flights from Monday. But there is some confusion as some state governments are opposing the plan.

The governments of Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have objected to the plan to resume passenger flights. It may be noted that these states are home to some of the country’s busiest airports – Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai – and also have high rates of coronavirus infection. These governments believe resuming flights may aggravate the situation. In addition, West Bengal state was last Thursday battered by Cyclone Amphan, and its government wants flights to be postponed till May 30, as it wants to concentrate on relief efforts.

Meanwhile, passenger airlines IndiGo, SpiceJet, AirAsia India and Vistara have started taking bookings for flights, but budget carrier GoAir said it was awaiting clarification on the rules for resuming services.

As per the federal government’s plan, a thousand flights are scheduled to take off on Monday for various domestic destinations. Strict social distancing norms and other safety guidelines will be followed at airports and on aircraft.

As per the final schedule drawn up by the civil aviation authorities, there will be about 1,095 departures on May 25, Livemint reported, quoting sources. Civil aviation authorities hope the stringent safeguards at airports and on aircraft will help them win the confidence of passengers. They plan to later scale up the operations.

The government has imposed an upper limit and lower limit on airfares, keeping in mind the interests of the passengers and small airlines. While this will prevent passengers from having to pay exorbitant fares, it will also curb predatory pricing by bigger airlines.

The passengers will have to download the Aarogya Setu app, a Covid-19-tracking mobile application developed by the National Informatics Centre, on their smartphones to show they are not infected by the virus. The app has drawn flak for its privacy breaches, and some fear the government may use the information for surveillance.

Vande Bharat Mission

Meanwhile, India is already carrying out the Vande Bharat Mission to airlift its citizens stranded in foreign countries due to Covid-19-related flight restrictions. It has so far repatriated over 23,000 Indian citizens, and over 259,000 Indians in 98 countries have registered for repatriation flights. Those returning are made to undergo a 14-day quarantine. The successful execution of this ongoing program has encouraged the authorities to allow flights as long as the necessary safeguards are in place.

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri has also expressed the hope that flights to overseas destinations will commence before August. At a Facebook live session he said, “I am fully hopeful that before August or September, we will try to start a good percentage of international civil aviation operations, if not complete international operations.”

All scheduled commercial passenger flights in India have been suspended since the Modi government imposed the lockdown on March 25.

Each airline is incurring a daily loss of of 700 to 900 million rupees, but the aviation sector was not included in the recent relief package announced by the government. Aviation, along with tourism and hospitality, have been the worst-hit sectors, as revenues have completely dried up since the lockdown began.

For the airlines the recovery is expected to be slow as winning back passengers’ confidence will likely take time. Aviation consultancy firm Capa says India’s aviation industry is expected to post losses of US$ 3-3.6 billion this quarter due to Covid-19-related disruptions. Experts also believe that many smaller airlines may either be sold off or merge with other carriers to survive.