Home / News / India /  India ready for cautious take-off as Centre eases ban on air travel

NEW DELHI : More than a thousand flights were set to take off on Monday in the first easing of an air travel ban in two months, but the country’s busiest route—the one between Delhi and Mumbai—was hobbled by a decision by Maharashtra, the worst affected by the coronavirus outbreak, to limit the number of flights.

Nearly 60% of flights operating on Monday are full, said Nishant Pitti, chief executive and co-founder of EaseMyTrip, indicating pent-up demand for travel, mostly from people who have been stranded in other cities following the surprise travel ban imposed on 25 March. About 90,000 people have booked for travel between 25 May and 31 May from airlines’ websites, travel agents and online platforms, he said.

A worker marks squares on the ground to help people maintain social distance at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad
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A worker marks squares on the ground to help people maintain social distance at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad

There will be an equal number of departures and arrivals at each airport, according to an industry executive who was present at a meeting of industry officials with civil aviation secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola.

The government also signalled its intent to restart more flights by announcing the resumption of its regional connectivity scheme—Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagarik (Udan), which links remote locations across the country. This is in addition to local flights that are being permitted from Monday, accounting for a third of the original summer schedule.

There will be 1,095 departures on the day, said a government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

There was little information on the schedule of flights.

Though the resumption of domestic flights was announced by the central government late last week, the entire operations became shrouded in uncertainty with some states, including Maharashtra and West Bengal, initially opposing the plan.

Later on Sunday, Maharashtra agreed to allow 25 arrivals and departures from Mumbai from 25 May, while other parts of Maharashtra will maintain one-third of flight capacity allocated during the full summer schedule.

“Though the resumption of flight operations is welcomed by airlines, it could have been planned better to avoid inconvenience to passengers with certain states disallowing domestic flight operations," said a senior airline official, who did not want to be named.

The uncertainty on whether flights may be cancelled kept travellers on tenterhooks.

“I’m checking the IndiGo app apart from news websites every five minutes. Why can’t they make up their minds? Do they even realize the stress that we are going through," asked Rohan Talukdar, who was due to take a Mumbai-Guwahati flight. Talukdar is booked to travel home with his mother, younger brother and a friend.

India’s busiest airport, New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International (IGIA), will handle about 380 flights, including 190 departures and 190 arrivals, on Monday. Airports operators across the country are preparing to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic.

For instance, the operators of the airport at New Delhi have taken measures, including installation of automatic hand sanitizers at various places, putting floor markers, allocation of entry gates and check-in islands for departing passengers.

According to the standard operating procedure guidelines prepared by the Airports Authority of India (AAI), only limited food and beverage shops and retail outlets will be allowed to open at airports, while food will be served in takeaway boxes.

Alcohol will not be permitted unless authorized by local administrations, while spa centres and massage chair facilities will remain suspended as a safety measure to enforce social distancing.

Seating at terminals will now be rearranged so that there is a 1-1.5 metre distance between passengers. Seating zones will be created in the security hold so that every alternate seat is free for departing passengers, with the area frequently cleaned and sanitized.

Airports will now also maintain staff near washrooms, X-ray machines, conveyor belts to implement social distancing among passengers.

Meanwhile, the government announced stringent protocols for non-resident Indians (NRIs) to fly abroad.

The move signals that a gradual resumption of international flight operations is also likely in the coming days and weeks.

Sharan Poovanna in Bengaluru, and Shaswati Das and Pooja Singh in New Delhi contributed to this story.

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