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Domestic Flights to resume operating by May 15, says Civil Aviation Minister

Hardeep Singh Puri

Civil Aviation minister, Hardeep Singh Puri, has informed that domestic flight services in India is likely to resume from the 15th of May at the earliest. Passenger-carrying commercial flights had been banned since the enforcement of a nationwide lockdown on March 24th. This lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of the Coronavirus. It had rendered all “non-essential” economic activities, idle.

In an interview with Outlook, Puri said, “We are planning to start domestic flight operations even before May 15. My effort will be to try and move in the direction of starting it very soon. I can’t put a date on it because when you are planning evacuation operations, you need the co-operation of the state governments. In order to open up domestic civil aviation, I need the domestic infrastructure in place.”

He added that flights services will only resume in between destinations which have been deemed a Green Zone by the government.

“We have to take a final decision on this. If you look at the map of India, operating between green zones is easy. But if you look at all the metropolitans, they are in red zone. We can’t leave them totally also. A decision will be taken on this in the next few days,” he specified.

Throwing light on the evacuation process of Indian citizens, stranded abroad, Puri had said, in an earlier statement that the government is open to the idea of involving private carriers if the situation arises. In the interview, he added, “We are not going to go ahead with the evacuation plan until respective states are ready with the quarantine plan. The Centre can only provide service to the people of picking and dropping them to their respective places. Rest, the states have to take care of the logistics.”

The first evacuation flight from Bahrain carrying 177 passengers had landed in Kochi at 11.30 PM on Friday. Similarly, two evacuation flights of Air India Express to Chennai from Dubai landed at Chennai International Airport with 356 passengers and three infants on the wee hours of Saturday. These flights are being operated as a part of the government’s campaign ‘Vande Bharat Mission‘ to bring back Indians stranded abroad due to lockdown caused by the global pandemic.

According to sources, the Centre has decided to operate about 64 Air India flights between May 7 and May 13 to bring back stranded Indians from 12 countries. So far a total of 67,833 people have been found eligible to be brought back home under the ‘Vande Bharat Mission’. After completing the first phase, the government may start the second phase of the mission from May 15.

“We got off to a good start and it’s just the beginning of the process. This is not an arrangement where the final details are cast in iron, as the expression goes…We will review it as we go along…Once we start domestic civil aviation, it cannot be called rescue. We are beginning commercial operation, and everyone will be able to travel,” he concluded, in this regard.

In another interview, Puri had said that resuming flight services will be a daunting task as the zones keep on changing based on the coronavirus cases reported in each area. Furthermore, he added that keeping the middle seat empty in flights to maintain social distancing is not an option and airlines will have to find a different solution to prevent the spread of the virus.

Airline companies in India have already rejected the proposal to keep middle seats vacant once flights resume. So, he explained that the low margin of air carriers and said that if the middle row seats are forced to keep empty, many airlines might choose not to operate the flights, adding that flying a plane one-third empty is not feasible.

This statement by Puri is further proof of the opposition of this idea from the leaders of airline companies. In a meeting held last month with the government to discuss social distancing measures, promoters of airlines called the proposed rules redundant. Moreover, they pointed out that such measures of distancing were unlikely to ensure complete safety for passengers. However, such a step would worsen the economics for airlines hit hard by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, they opined.

Airlines will be the worst-affected segment, contributing more than 70 per cent to the losses (around Rs 17,000 crore), said Jagannarayan Padmanabhan, Director and Practice Leader, Transport and Logistics, Crisil Infrastructure Advisory.

Airport operators are likely to suffer losses worth ₹5,000-5,500 Crore and airport retailers will see a hit of ₹1,700-1,800 Crore, he noted.

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