Chaotic Sunday forces customers, airlines to re-draw plans for flight resumptionPage Visited: 20
Nilesh Ahuja, an entrepreneur in Delhi, flew down to Mumbai in March to attend a family gathering. It was supposed to be a short visit. But, even before he could book a return ticket, the nation went into a lockdown, which came into effect from March 24, and flights were suspended.
Since then, it had been a long wait until May 20, when Ahuja heard a news that he was eagerly waiting for. Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri announced that domestic flights would restart from May 25.
It was a surprise, too. “As the fourth phase of the lockdown was getting over only on May 31, I was in the belief that flights will resume only after that,” says Ahuja. As soon as IndiGo started accepting bookings, Ahuja got a ticket for the first available flight on May 25. It was a 6.40 am flight to Delhi.
But, circumstances suddenly changed on May 23. Reports started emerging that the government in Maharashtra, the state with the most number of reported COVID-19 cases in the country, might not grant permission for the Mumbai airport to operate.
It was not just Maharashtra, but West Bengal and Tamil Nadu also aired reservations on the same. While other states agreed to let airports function, they put down quarantine rules, ranging from seven days to a fortnight, for fliers coming in. “Didn’t the Civil Aviation Ministry talk with states before making the announcement,” Ahuja wondered.
His hopes dimmed after Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, in his address on May 24 afternoon, said that the state needed more time to accept flights.
Circumstances changed again, this time for the better. By Sunday evening, it looked like the state government had reached a compromise with the Centre, and finally agreed to let 25 arrivals and an equal number of departures from the Mumbai airport.
“But, then, what would happen to my flight? Will it be a part of the 25 departures, or would that be cancelled? How about the money, will the airline charge for the rescheduling?” said worried Ahuja.
That was around 6.30 pm. The tension lasted for another five hours. And Ahuja’s worst fears came true. His flight got cancelled. Now, he has to wait for the airline to get back. Ahuja may find himself on another flight on May 25, or may have to wait for a day more.
“The government had two months to plan the resumption of flights. Could’t this have been done better?” asks Ahuja.
It is a question many in the aviation sector are now asking.
The confusion perhaps began the moment the Civil Aviation Minister, on May 20, announced the resumption of flights. He was giving airlines five days to resume operations despite earlier assurances that more time would be given.
“Resuming operations is much more complicated than suspending them. Aircraft are parked across the country. Each state has different lockdown rules, affecting movement of crew,” says a senior executive from a private airline. Not just that, with airlines allowed to operate just one-third of the summer schedule, they had to work harder to decide on routes, and rostering of pilots and crew.
It was also surprising because just three days ago, on May 17, industry regulator DGCA had issued a notice saying that the suspension of flights would continue till May 31, when the fourth lockdown would get over.
Sources told Moneycontrol that the government had changed its stance after intense lobbying from airlines to reconsider the decision. The carriers have been starved of cash for two months and forced to cut pays and send employees on leave without pay, to reduce costs. It did not help that the government measures for the aviation sector, as a part of the Rs 20 lakh crore package, had not brought immediate relief.
But, what infuriated airline executives the most was the government’s decision to put a cap on fares. For instance, rates in the Delhi-Mumbai route – the busiest in the country – will range from Rs 3,500 to Rs 10,000. Spot fares on the route sometimes go up to Rs 25,000.
In their meeting with the DGCA, airline executives argued that controlling fares was against the competition dynamics of the industry. “Let the consumer decide the fare. Why should I charge the same as the other airline?” says an industry executive.
But, the proposal from the government, was clear.
“The choice was between not starting operations and accepting the fares,” says another industry executive.
In the meeting, which saw temperature rising because of heated arguments, airline executives also aired concerns about quarantine conditions by state governments. The apparent lack of coordination between the governments, led to chaotic moments on May 24.
“States can also develop their own protocol with regards to quarantine and isolation as per their assessment.”
The footnote of a guideline issued by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on May 24 perhaps underlined the bewilderment of the industry.
“How can we plan our schedule if each state has its own rules?” asked an industry executive.
Two meetings were held on May 24 between industry executives and officials of the DGCA and the ministry. By the time the second meeting got over in the evening, airlines realised that they had to re-draw their plans.
Apart from the Mumbai airport operating only 50 flights, Kolkata, Bagdogra, Vijaywada and Vizag airports delayed the commencement date. The number of flights was also severely truncated.
“It’s like the Ministry has thrown up its hands and has asked the airlines to do whatever they want within the flight limit constraints,” says a senior executive from the industry.
Not surprisingly, airlines were forced to re-work their schedules. The very first flight on May 25, from Bengaluru to Delhi got cancelled. IndiGo, which earlier had six flights from Mumbai to Delhi on the first day, now had just one.
Vistara, which usually operates 200 flights a day to 34 destinations, will have to do with 20 flights to 10 destinations. That is one-tenth its schedule, not one-third.
Rostering, too, has gone haywire. A private airline did not decide on the crew for May 25 till late night of May 24. Sources said that IndiGo pilots had to do with daily rosters, whereas usually these are done for 30 days.
“Things are going to be dynamic for the next two weeks,” said an executive.
Perhaps, it has been most ‘dynamic’ for customers. Abhimanyu Chaturvedi has now booked a ticket for his mother, who is stuck in Delhi since March, for the fourth time in two months. He did the first booking in April, hoping that flights will resume after the first lockdown. Chaturvedi booked again for May, and even for June.
Like Ahuja, he was also pleasantly surprised by the May 20 announcement on resumption of flights. The Pune resident got his mother a ticket on an AirAsia India flight on May 25.
“She’s been really anxious for the past month and I hope the government finally allows her to come home tomorrow,” says Chaturvedi. He is also worried about the quarantine that his mother will have to go through once she lands in Pune.
“It is not very clear,” he says.
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