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Domestic flights to resume from 25 May: Govt can dictate fare capping to private airlines only if it provides discounts on fuel, other charges

Sulekha Nair

The government's Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to be followed before taking a flight has been largely welcomed by experts in the aviation sector. Everyone agrees that after lockdown measures announced to contain the spread of coronvirus is important and necessary for the government to have come out with a detailed SOP. Some welcomed it as a 'good thought-out gesture' by the government.

Experts in aviation sector pointed out the flaws in the government's SOPs:

Capping of fares

The government will regulate fares and it will be in a fixed range with a minimum and a maximum fare already set for the route. Aviation experts wonder who gave the government advice on this matter.

"Fixing refunds earlier and now fixing fares - even though temp and in emergency only - is unfortunate," said Kapil Kaul, CEO & Director, CAPA South Asia-an advisory and research firm focussed on aviation and aerospace." Kaul said, in the absence of demand data and with continuing uncertainty, he said he was not sure what inputs were used to arrive at the fare bands. According to data released by Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA, airlines had zero passengers for the last six days in March. Airlines flew 7.8 million passengers, against 11.5 million in March against the same month last year. Airlines in India are likely to suffer a revenue loss of $11.2 billion, leading to 2.9 million jobs at risk as passenger demand will fall by 47 per cent, according to the latest estimates by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

In this backdrop, the government capping fares and also allowing only 1/3rd of flights to operate under strict rules when domestic flight services resume on 25 May will hit the sector. Jitendra Bhargava, former ED, Air India said the sector has been going through a rough time with fuel hikes, no flights since lockdown and having to pay salaries to their employees. ""These rules will not impact much on those airlines which have cash reserves, but what about those who are struggling," he said.

One-third of flights allowed to operate

After being not allowed to fly due to the lockdown measures, the announcement about opening up of the sector would have been good if the airlines were allowed to deploy al their fleet. "The government cannot say flights should be only 30 percent full or decide on fares. This is a matter of supply and demand," said Mark D Martin, Founder and CEO, Martin Consulting, an aviation safety firm. He said that the capping may work for airlines that are doing well like a Go Air or Indigo Airlines which have low operating costs and no debt. But what about the others, he said.

If the government was keen on capping fares, it should have done that in the case of Air India, which it owns, "said Ajay Awtaney, business travel and aviation journalist and the founder of the Indian frequent-traveller website He said,the government was setting a wrong precedent.

The government has done this in the past in the form of putting out an advisory. In 2018, the Central government had asked domestic airlines to keep a check on air fares for flights operating to and from Kerala as the state was suffers from one of the worst bouts of floods in the recent past as a 'humanitarian cause'. The government was successful at it too.

Awtaney said he fears that if this capping of fares works out well in the changed circumstances, the government may not want to roll it back. "Airlines have been paying bills and there no cash that they have generated in the months of shutdown. Now they need to generate cash for immediate needs. The 1/3rd rule of taking passengers and capping fares still does not help when it comes to airlines having to pay navigational charges, landing charges, fuel charges. The government is not offering any discounts on it. The govt is not helping the airline and should not be in the business," he said.

Quarantine policy

Puri said, people who are positive will not be allowed to board the flights. But Assam government came out with a statement that the state government would quarantine passengers coming travelling on flights except crew members."If anybody will be found violating the mandatory quarantine of 14 days, a criminal case will be filed against them and they will be arrested. Nobody will be spared no matter how powerful or influential he/she is," Himanta Biswa Sarma said.

Awtaney said there is a big question mark on quarantine policy. He said when countries in the European Union have managed to come out with common standard of flying and no quarantine period for those travelling within the EU, why should states in India act like a nation. "There should be a harmonious policy going forward. There needs to be unified policy and this should be out before the airlines start ticketing," Awtaney said.

Arogya Setu app

The passengers are expected to certify the status of their health through the Aarogya Setu app or a self-declaration form," Puri said during a press briefing on the resumption of domestic air travel in the country.

Not many agree that it will be a good decision. The devil is in the execution, they said. "We are good at making rules but what about implementation, said Bhargava.

For starters, the app has to be downloaded and that can be an irritant for many who are not tech-savvy. Some passengers may be randomly checked and their swabs taken. "Do airports have the time for this? Travel is an ordeal in itself and with these rules, the government is making it a horrible nightmare. I welcome the move by the government but they have to factor these rules do not delay flights," said Martin. He would rather the government focussed more on the hygiene as that is crucial, he said.

Passengers are expected to carry a printout of their tickets. "Do all passengers have printers at their homes? It would have been easier to allow for printouts in the airport instead," suggested Bhargava.


Also See: Baggage sanitisation, thermal screening, Aarogya Setu must except for kids under 14: AAI issues SOPs for airlines, passengers

Airports Authority of India issues SOPs day after Centre says domestic flights to resume from 25 May in 'calibrated manner'

Coronavirus Outbreak: Guidelines announced by aviation ministry for domestic flight services

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