Passengers at Mumbai airport queue to board a plane on May 25, 2020, on the first day of service after India’s Covid-19 lockdown. Photo: AFP / Indranil Mukherjee

India’s civil aviation sector, long reeling under the Covid-19 headwinds, suffered yet another blow after the second wave tightened its grip across the country.

According to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, 2.1 million passengers traveled in May, down 63% from 5.7 million passengers in April and 7.82 million in March. India currently operates only domestic flights. Scheduled international flights have remained suspended since last March.

India’s civil aviation was showing signs of recovery after last year’s lockdown, amid strict safety protocols. However, the current second wave and its whopping death toll has forced people to shun travel.

Market leader IndiGo carried 1.1 million passengers in May, a 55% share of the domestic market. SpiceJet flew 199,000 passengers, accounting for a 9.4% share of the market. State-owned Air India carried 429,000 passengers, while Tata Group run Vistara and AirAsia India carried 97,000 and 64,000 passengers, respectively, and Go First airline (previously known as GoAir) logged 138,000 passengers in May.

Indian airlines are allowed to operate a maximum of 50% of their pre-pandemic domestic flights. Last year India suspended all flights in March as part of the countrywide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus, and domestic passenger flights resumed two months later on May 25. International flights continue to remain suspended and the federal government has extended the ban period multiple times.

However, the Indian government had allowed special international flights under the Vande Bharat Mission to bring back Indians stranded abroad. It had later entered into bilateral “air bubble” arrangements with select countries that allowed the operation of special international flights. Air bubble pacts were signed with 27 countries, including the US, the UK, the UAE, Kenya, Bhutan and France.

But with the alarming rise in Covid-19 cases in India, many countries have now imposed curbs on allowing Indian travelers to enter their territory. While the US has clamped down the travel ban on people arriving from India, the UK has put India on its “red list,” which means foreigners who have been in India in the previous 10 days will be refused entry.

Numerous other countries, including Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Kuwait, Nepal, Israel, Singapore, New Zealand and others have banned flights from India.

All airlines in India have opted for cost-reducing measures such as pay cuts, leave without pay and layoffs in order to tide over the crisis. Airlines research body CAPA has said the second wave will spur consolidation in the Indian civil aviation space and this will result in a “2-3 airline system in the near to medium term.”

“The impact will be more pronounced in the international sector which will be seriously impaired by travel bans and advisories announced by several countries on outbound Indian travelers. And it will take significant time to restore the confidence of inbound tourists and business travelers in India as a destination. Pre-Covid traffic is only expected to be restored by FY2024,” it added.