Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri in an exclusive interview to Outlook said the government is planning to start domestic flight operations before May 15. "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," Puri told Outlook. But the resumption of these services at a time when the cases of Coronavirus continue to surge across the country comes with several unprecedented challenges.
Aviation experts say that it is easier said than done as the whole ecosystem needs to function which include public transport to airport preparedness to the relaxation in aviation norms for both passengers as well as the crew.
Except for three to four major airports, which have remained occasionally operational during the lockdown period, other airports don’t have any exit plan in place right now. Most of the major airports are in the red zone where lockdown norms are strictly enforced making it difficult to start public transport.
The Major Challenges:
Reaching the airport: A flyer cannot reach the airport without public transport. Those who can travel in their own private vehicles can’t go out unless they have a movement pass issued from the local administration. “It's a far-fetched distant dream of Government without considering operational challenges. There is a whole ecosystem for airlines to operate which includes private taxi to ferry passengers to and fro unless that system is activated. Government can't even think of starting air operation,” Ajay Jasra, former corporate communication head, IndiGo, said.
Operational preparedness at airports: Except a few airports in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad etc, all others have remained non-operational for over one and a half month. Readying the airport following COVID-19 guidelines is a mammoth task that involves human resources, money, expertise and medical support. Departure ramp and terminal gate entry, check-in hall, security check, security holding area, boarding gates, baggage reclaim area, etc. need to be disinfected after every trip and that requires huge manpower.
“Availability of hand sanitizer, thermal scanning, disinfecting trolleys, passages after every operation are basic arrangements among other things. A medical team of doctors need to be deployed. Who will bear the cost for all this?,” RS Dagar, former radar controller and an aviation expert, says.
Social distancing in the aircraft: Maintaining a physical distance of one meter inside the aircraft will increase the ticket cost per person more than two or three times. An aircraft that can carry 180 passengers cannot accommodate more than 60 if the one-meter norm is enforced. If the middle seat is left vacant, it can still take only 120 passengers. “There is no clarity on social distancing in the aircraft and I believe airlines and government are on loggerheads over the issue” an aviation expert says.
Safety of in-flight crew: The safety of the in-flight crew and ground staff, who come in close conatct with many passengers in a close environment, is yet another concern. “Is face mask good enough for their safety or working in PPE suit a feasible option? There are lot many other issues that need clarity from government and industry,” Jasra says. A section of experts says that PPE for the whole crew is also not a practical solution as it will create a lot of cost and wastage.
Amendment in aviation norms: The global aviation regulator, International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and national regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) will have to relax various norms for the crew as well as passengers. For instance, the minimum crew requirement on each flight should be reduced to meet the COVID-19 norms.
Availability of air-passengers: Finally, with all these measures in place, the success of the operation depends on the availability of air flyers. Many experts say that people prefer to drive to their destinations if these are within 500 to 600 km. “If I have a curfew pass, I prefer to drive to Lucknow or Jaipur or Chandigarh rather than fly. It is safer and easier than flying,” says one of the experts.