COVID-19: Indian domestic aviation flies into chaos

Long queues, cancellations, and lack of information cause problems

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Media reports from India say the re-start of domestic flights on the subcontinent, which started on Monday (25 May) was “chaos” as long lines of passengers, unclear rules in various jurisdictions and restrictions on flights caused delays and some cancellations. Domestic and most international flights had been shuttered for two months as a way to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

A screenshot of aviation traffic over India from Flightradar24 taken on 26 May. (PHOTO: Matt Driskill)

Maharashtra state, which has India’s highest number of COVID-19 cases, said it would only allow only 50 flights a day, leading to several cancellations. Angry passengers say they were not informed ahead of time. “Our flight was cancelled and there is no-one to answer us at the help desk. We don’t know what to do now,” a passenger in the southern city of Chennai told the ANI news agency. He says he and his family have been in the city since 15 March, and finally booked tickets to fly back to their home in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra state. They only found out about the cancellation after arriving at the airport, the passenger said.

A screenshot of the COVID-19 tracking map produced by Johns Hopkins University taken on 26 May. To access the live site, click on the image. (PHOTO: Matt Driskill)

India has stepped up preventive measures ahead of resuming domestic flights. Security officers are checking each passenger’s temperature and verifying that they have downloaded the government’s COVID-19 tracking app, Aarogya Setu. Other measures include disinfecting shoes and luggage.

The country has begun easing restrictions on the nationwide lockdown imposed on 25 March, which saw passenger trains and flights suspended, and most businesses being asked to close or operate only with staff working from home.

Other media reports said airlines like IndiGo, India’s biggest carrier, SpiceJet and Vistara, a joint venture between Tata Group and Singapore Airlines, had been preparing to resume operations from Monday with about a third of their capacity amid strict rules. But new restrictions at major airports, including Mumbai and Chennai, forced airlines to scramble late on Sunday to revise schedules.

“The entire handling of the restart has been reduced to a farce, causing pain for airlines, airports, and passengers,” said an industry executive on condition of anonymity, in one report. IndiGo had planned to start with about 430 daily flights while its low-cost rival SpiceJet said it would operate 204 flights a day and AirAsia India would start with 77 flights.

The final number could be much lower as some states, especially where coronavirus cases are rising, have curtailed air travel following relaxations that last Thursday allowed some domestic operations to resume. IndiGo said on Monday it plans to fly just over 200 daily flights until May 31.

India’s Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri.

Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said earlier that strict rules would include mandatory mask-wearing and thermal screenings, although middle seats on the aircraft would not be kept empty. The announcement reportedly caught airlines and state authorities off guard, with several local governments announcing that passengers would have to go into quarantine for two weeks on arrival.

“It’s unfortunate there was no effective coordination between the states and central government. Each state has come out with its own rules, which is confusing and will compel only a few to fly,” said aviation law expert Nitin Sarin, a managing partner at Sarin & Co.

Airlines scrapped dozens of flights on Monday while hundreds of passengers cancelled their bookings, reports said. The NDTV news channel said 82 flights to and from New Delhi had been cancelled and nine at Bangalore airport.

On Monday (26 May), India had 145,456 cases of COVID-19 and more than 4,000 deaths.  Health experts fear that India could emerge as one of the world’s hotspots after keeping its numbers relatively low compared to some Western countries.


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