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India’s domestic air passenger traffic grew 3.5% sequentially in January indicating a recovery is underway from the turmoil caused by strict curbs on travel last year.

About 7.6 million passengers travelled on domestic routes last month, credit rating agency Icra said in a statement on Monday. The figure, however, marked a 41% decline from a year earlier.

Airlines in the country are starting to gain from the lifting of restrictions and easing of cap on seat capacity on scheduled flights. Airlines deployed about 71% capacity in January, rising from 67% and 59% capacity deployed in December and November, respectively, Icra said.

The government paused domestic flight operations from March last year as part of efforts to contain the pandemic. Carriers were allowed to resume flight operations from 25 May but at a reduced capacity, which was initially pegged at 33% of pre-covid capacity, and raised to 45% from June, 60% from September, 70% from November, and 80% from December.

“The number of flights departing has also gradually increased from 416 on Day 1 (of the lockdown) to 2,294 on Day 240 (18 January). For January 2021, the average daily departures were about 2,190, significantly lower than the average daily departures of 3,080 in January 2020, though better than about 2,048 in December 2020," said Kinjal Shah, vice president at Icra.

“The average number of passengers per flight during January 2021 was 111, against an average of 134 passengers per flight in January 2020. Thus, it is expected that the domestic aviation industry operated at a passenger load factor (PLF) of about 72% in January 2021, against 86.0% in January 2020, that too on a low capacity," Shah said, adding that the load factor in January 2021 was lower than December’s 74% as airlines were allowed to deploy about 7% more capacity.

Meanwhile, the Indian government has extended the ban on international commercial flights till 28 February. However, dedicated cargo flights and those specifically allowed by the civil aviation regulator such as flights under the bilateral air bubble pacts with select countries will continue to operate.

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