Parked planes at Mumbai airport, where traffic has fallen dramatically due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: AFP

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The fortunes of India’s civil aviation sector nosedived after the imposition of the countrywide lockdown on March 24, and the industry faces an uncertain future as the Covid-19 curve is showing no signs of flattening. Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s civil aviation minister, told Parliament on Wednesday that the revenue of Indian airlines fell 85.7% to 36.51 billion rupees (US$489 million) during the April-June quarter.

Many Indian airlines had to shed staff and the total employee count fell from 74,887 on March 31 to 69,589 on July 31, a decrease of 7.07%, he stated in a written reply to a question in the upper house (Rajya Sabha). The employee count at airports fell from 67,760 on March 31 to 64,514 on July 31, while the count at ground handling agencies fell by 22.44% to 29,254 in the April-July period, he added.

Scheduled domestic flight services were suspended in India from March 25 to May 24 due to the lockdown. They resumed from May 25 but in a curtailed manner with strict safety protocols in place. International flights remain suspended, but in July the Indian government made bilateral air bubble arrangements with some countries, including the UK, France and the US.

Domestic air traffic fell to 12 million passengers during the March-July period, compared with 58.5 million in the year-ago period. International air traffic dropped to 1.1 million in the March-July period as compared to 9.3 million in the year-ago period, the minister added.

The April-June revenue of Indian carriers was reduced to 36.51 billion from 255 billion rupees during the same period last year. State-owned airline Air India’s total revenue fell to 15.31 billion rupees in the first quarter from 70 billion last year.

The country’s biggest airline, IndiGo, reported a staggering loss of 28.44 billion ($386 million) in the April to June period, as against a profit of 12 billion rupees last year.

Rival SpiceJet reported a loss of 5.93 billion during the same period, as against a profit of 2.6 billion last year. On the back of this loss its net worth has fallen further and its auditor, S.R. Batliboi & Associates, has flagged concerns about its future, Fortune reports.

Domestic airlines are currently allowed to operate 60% of their normal schedule. The number of daily passengers is showing a gradual increase and the ministry has said that 120,000 people took to the skies across the country on September 1.

However, the burgeoning Covid-19 caseload remains a concern as it might scare away people from air travel or force the government to reinstate travel curbs. The total number of coronavirus cases in India has crossed five million, making it second only to the US in the world. What is even more worrying it that the last million was added in a mere 11 days, indicating that the infection is spreading at a fast pace.

Major cities including Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai have been badly affected, while Maharashtra state alone accounts for over a million cases.

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