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Why flights are unlikely to resume any time soon

By Arindam Majumder and Aneesh Phadnis
May 10, 2020 10:25 IST
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‘Indian aviation cannot resume without at least three major airports being functional. If Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Kolkata are shut, there is little chance that airlines will start flying even if the government gives the go-ahead.’ 

Photograph: Greg Baker/Reuters

Airline executives have opposed the idea of restarting air transport only between cities classified as green zones, saying this will be a non-starter as major metro airports fall under the red zone. 

A committee of the civil aviation ministry, headed by Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola, met on Saturday to discuss the resumption of air travel where industry executives as well as some officials expressed their disagreement with the proposal.  

 

“Indian aviation cannot resume without at least three major airports being functional. If Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Kolkata are shut, there is little chance that airlines will start flying even if the government gives the go-ahead,” the chief executive officer of an airline said. 

The top six metro airports account for about 65 per cent of domestic air traffic. 

The Union health ministry has split 733 districts across India into red, orange and green zones based on the number of Covid-19 cases and the doubling rate of the disease. 

The list designated major cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, and Ahmedabad, as ‘no activity’ zones as lockdown was extended by two weeks beyond May 4. 

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri recently said the government was considering gradually restarting aviation, first with flights exclusively between green zones. “We will have to open the aviation sector in a gradual and calibrated manner. We can only plan for flights between two green zones. It will be difficult to resume services between red zones,” Puri had said. 

Senior government officials said restarting air transport between red zones could be possible only if the state government concerned agreed to it. The Telangana government has already extended the third phase of lockdown till May 29. 

The Centre is keen to avoid confusion like the one that occurred on March 22, when Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced the shutdown of Delhi airport. The central government had later overruled the decision, pointing out that aviation was its domain. 

“We are keen to restart economic activity, of which aviation is an important component. But the central government cannot take a decision in isolation as state governments are better suited to decide their capability,” an official said. 

A second airline executive pointed out that close to 90 per cent of the aircraft grounded since March 24 were stored at top airports. About 180 aircraft are stored in Delhi airport, while Mumbai airport has close to 80 aircraft. 

The rest have been parked in other metros. “Even for a marginal restart of operations, you have to restart Delhi or Mumbai airport, without which it is quite impractical to talk about air transport resumption,” he said. 

A Maharashtra government official said the state had no plans to allow the opening up of transport. “Restarting aviation is not even on our agenda now,” he said. 

Officials working on the government’s plan to resume transport said they were planning to restart the entire transport system in an integrated manner. 

“You can’t restart air transport without opening up the cab aggregator service. We are also looking to restart public transport in a skimmed manner, so that economy restarts. But for that, the state government will have to agree,” said an official.

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Arindam Majumder and Aneesh Phadnis in New Delhi/Mumbai
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