Confusion Reigns as India Readies To Open Domestic Skies

 - May 21, 2020, 4:12 PM

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.

The sudden and unexpected announcement on Thursday to permit Indian domestic airlines to start flying one-third of their summer schedules “in a calibrated manner” from May 25 has created chaos and confusion on the subcontinent.

An issue of discontent centers on the lack of clarity on quarantines required by many of 36 of India’s states and union territories, each of which maintain their own guidelines related to the countrywide lockdown until May 31.

Indian minister of civil aviation Hardeep Singh Puri said at a press conference Thursday that quarantines would not apply to domestic flights. However, Himanta Biswa Sarma, health minister of the northeast state of Assam, insisted that a 14-day quarantine will remain mandatory for all air passengers.

Strict lockdown rules that do not allow Mumbai citizens to move out of their homes until May 31 will likely cause turmoil. The city, which counts more than 25,000 Covid-19 cases, ranked as the seventh-largest city pair with Delhi in the top 10 domestic global routes by weekly seat capacity last year.

“No taxis are allowed, so how will people go to and from the airport?” asked Vman Aero Services CEO Vishok Mansingh. “Yet airlines have started booking on this sector.” He added that the federal government should have asked states to clarify their quarantine, local transport, and hotel policy to ensure they were accepting guests. “This is poor planning with no cohesive plan, one that has not given airlines time to strategize,” said Mansingh. “It is likely to cause chaos among passengers, at least in the first week.”

Airports have set their standard operating procedures to ensure distancing. Airlines, too, must follow protocols that include mandatory use of masks and gloves, protective gear for the crew, a 20-kilogram limit on checked baggage, and a ban on food and beverages inflight. The situation has created a challenge for India’s two full-service airlines, Air India and Vistara, both of which will see the regulations neutralize their distinction from low-fare carriers.

Puri confirmed the protocols will allow the sale of middle seats. Authorities have capped fares under seven categories according to flight duration, resulting in a minimum and maximum fare on each route until August 24.