An Air India plane prepares to take off in Mumbai. Photo: AFP / Himanshu Bhatt / NurPhoto

In a further sign of easing of Covid-19 restrictions, India has now allowed domestic passenger flights to operate at 65% capacity.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation has said the new rule will come into effect from July 5 and it will remain in force till July 31 or until further orders, whichever is earlier. The airlines’ watchdog had in May capped passenger capacity at 50% after the second wave of the pandemic wreaked havoc in the country. Prior to that airlines were allowed to fly with 80% capacity.

During the peak of the second wave, demand also fell as people curtailed travel to a bare minimum, affecting both leisure and business travel segments. According to rating agency ICRA, the number of flights in May was down to 900 a day, from 2,000 in April. In May, domestic passenger traffic stood around two million, compared with 5.73 million in April, a sequential decline of 65-67%.

However, with the drop in cases and easing of lockdowns, domestic air passenger traffic is looking up. According to brokerage firm ICICI Securities, the country’s air passenger traffic rose for the fifth straight week. The average number of daily fliers rose to 135,000 for the week ended July 3, from 114,000 fliers a week before.

The average number of departures rose to 1,408 during the week, from 1,264 in the previous week. The number of fliers per departure improved to 95 from 90 during the previous week. “Average daily fliers grew 18% week-on-week due to 11.4% growth in departures and 5.9% growth in the number of fliers per departure,” the report said.

Most airlines are now focusing on implementing Covid-19 precautionary measures, vaccinating crew, and urging passengers to take the jab. Recently, Vistara flew its first domestic flight with a fully vaccinated crew and Air India Express did the same for an international flight from Delhi to Dubai. Vistara also announced that it has administered the first dose of the vaccine to nearly all its staff members. Market leader IndiGo has rolled out discounts for passengers who have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

The civil aviation ministry had banned all passenger flights last year for two months to curtail the spread of the virus. When it allowed resumption of domestic flights from May 25, only 33% capacity deployment was allowed. As the number of daily coronavirus cases subsided, the government had gradually scaled up the capacity and from last December it was 80%.

However, the scheduled international flights remain suspended for over a year and recently the ban was extended till July 31. But international flights under the Vande Bharat Mission have been operating to select countries since May last year to bring back stranded Indian citizens.

Last year, India had also entered into bilateral “air bubble” arrangements with many countries, including the US, the UK, Germany, France, the UAE, Canada, Japan, and others. However, after India’s Covid-19 cases soared during the second wave, many countries have suspended flights.