The Indian government is considering the revival of international flights from next month, starting with a small number of flights on a pilot basis.
Various departments of the government are in consultations for re-booting the international air connectivity and officials are in touch with various countries, including the US, Singapore, Canada, UAE and the UK, to ensure smooth take-off.
International flight connectivity has remained suspended since March 25 and only rescue flights to bring back stranded Indians from other countries are being operated by Air India under the ‘Vande Bharat’ mission. The only operation that has been allowed throughout the lockdown period is the operation of cargo flights, especially to transport medicines and medical equipment on international routes.
Success of domestic flight operations will be crucial
Resumption of domestic flights from next week is being seen as a case study for reviving international flights later as the standard operating procedures will be similar for international flights too.
While immigration and customs clearances for international flights will make it more cumbersome, settling down of the departure and arrival procedures during operation of domestic flights will be a learning experience in the COVID-19 era, officials of the civil aviation ministry said.
Success of domestic flight operations will be important for re-launching international flights, the officials told The Federal. “When we launch international flight operations, rules and regulations of the connecting country will be implemented in addition to our norms,” they explained.
Those infected by Covid-19 in the past 2 months cannot fly
According to the civil aviation ministry’s regulations, anybody who had tested positive for COVID-19 in the past two months, cannot take the domestic flights. This includes even those who have been cured from the infection and discharged from hospital after testing negative.
Since registration on Aarogya Setu app is a must for those willing to fly, the government hopes to track passenger data and take steps to avoid the spread of COVID-19. The same rule is likely to be implemented for international flights as well in case of Indian citizens.
However, various countries may impose additional conditions like a recent medical certificate declaring the passenger COVID-19-negative and details of onward travel from the point of arrival. The revival of international flights will also depend on the response from other countries, and while some countries are ready for an early launch of flights to India, others are not. Therefore, officials feel air connectivity to some countries like the US and Canada may be resumed sooner while it may take more time for other destinations.
Airports ready for international operations
While no clear date has been decided for the re-launch of international flights, the key gateway airports across the country are ready for international operations.
Since more than five dozen Air India flights have already been operated to bring back stranded Indians, immigration and customs authorities have already put in place standard operating procedures for passengers arriving from and departing to other countries. And cargo flights to other countries have also been operating for transporting medicines like hydroxychloroquine from India and test kits as well as other equipment from other countries into India.
Air India has already informed the airports that the ‘Vande Bharat’ mission of rescue flights will continue till demand persists and airport officials expect private airlines to join the mission at a later stage.
Quarantine rules need to be ironed out
Even as domestic flights are allowed to take off, the central government is in touch with the various state governments for the implementation of quarantine rules. If a passenger is returning to his home from another city, the quarantine at the arrival city will be an one-time affair.
However, if someone wants to visit an ailing parent in another city and return back to work, quarantine at both places may lead to loss of several days if state governments at both points insist on a quarantine of one week or more. As of now, there is no clarity on what will be the quarantine rule for domestic passengers in each state and efforts are on to clear this.
Fare regulation is a tricky issue
Regulation of fares at this juncture is another sensitive issue since unusually high fares will invite complaints from passengers. Keeping a tight ceiling on fares would lead to airlines crying foul, especially since they are coming out of a two-month lockdown that has led to huge losses.
Therefore, officials of the civil aviation ministry want to a strike a fine balance and keep the policy nimble. The director general of civil aviation has been asked to monitor the situation closely. Fares will become an even more ticklish issue when international airlines start operating flights connecting India.
Low frequency in the beginning
Fares may be high as domestic airline service is opening up after a two-month gap and there could be a lot of pending demand, officials said. Also, only one-third of the usual capacity is likely to be deployed in the beginning as the government wants gradual scaling up. Once capacity deployment is stepped up after operations stabilise, then fares will also settle down, officials feel.
Since some state governments like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Odisha do not want to be burdened with too many incoming passengers, who need to be quarantined, flights to these destinations will be fewer in number. Also, Kolkata and Bhubaneswar are reeling under the impact of cyclone Amphan, and it may take a while for West Bengal and Odisha to get connected with adequate flight capacity.