New Delhi: Two months after India grounded domestic flights to halt the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), passenger jets took to the air again on Monday, but only half of the scheduled operations could resume amid widespread confusion over operations and reluctance by some states to allow inbound travellers.
States agreed with the Centre on Sunday to allow a graded reopening of flight operations after putting in place local measures to quarantine and isolate passengers to avoid a spiralling of infections. Numbers of flights operating across airports have been capped, with the Centre allowing only a third of domestic operations amid a national lockdown triggered by the pandemic.
On Monday, however, about half of the estimated 1,100 expected flights had to be cancelled as airlines reconciled with the varying public health rules of states and reworked their flight schedules. An official said that 82 flights – departures and arrivals – were cancelled at the Delhi airport, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded. At least 190 departures and 190 arrivals were previously scheduled for the first day from Delhi.
Union civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri said 532 flights carried 39,231 passengers on the first day of the resumption of operations. “…action has returned to Indian skies. With Andhra Pradesh set to resume operations from tomorrow & West Bengal from 28 May, these numbers are all set to increase further,” he tweeted.
According to a person aware of the developments, on May 22, bookings opened for around 1,100 domestic flights for Monday.
The first flight took off from Delhi for Pune at 4.45am under strict regulations recommended by civil aviation authorities. Among the standard operating procedures are strict social distancing norms, hand hygiene rules and the use of masks. The first flight from Mumbai was to Patna and it departed at 6.45am.
At Delhi airport, hundreds of people anxious to catch a flight queued from before dawn – all wearing masks and standing at least a metre apart. The flight cancellations resulted in many being stranded at the facility.
“There was not a single message or mail informing me that my flight has been cancelled. All of us who reached the airport today were mostly travelling in emergencies. If the airlines cannot keep the schedule on time, they must at least keep their passengers posted. This is sheer mismanagement,” said a doctor who asked not to be named.
Sunil Kujur, a retired government employee, woke up early on Monday after a phone call about his father’s death at their house in Ranchi. Within minutes, Kujur, a resident of west Delhi’s Uttam Nagar, booked two seats on an Air India flight to Ranchi for himself and his daughter. When it was time to leave for the airport, however, they learnt that the flight was cancelled. “Instead of my morning flight, I had to book another flight that leaves in the afternoon. I was late for my father’s last rites,” he said.
Security personnel behind plastic screens verified check-in documents and that passengers had the government contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu, on their phones.
Scenes of chaos were also reported at the Mumbai airport. Departure and arrival of 47 flights at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport was reported, with confusion owing to last-minute changes in flight schedules being the primary reason for the chaos. The authorities have capped the total daily flights operating out of the airport at 50.
While the flight operations resumed early in the day, the Maharashtra government issued detailed guidelines for travellers later, mandating 14-day home quarantine, with such people required to be stamped on the left hand.
IndiGo initially planned to start with about 430 daily flights while its low-cost rival SpiceJet said it would operate 204 flights a day and AirAsia India would start with 77 flights. The final number, however, was much lower amid curtailed operations. IndiGo said on Monday it planned to fly just over 200 daily flights until May 31. Before the outbreak of the highly contagious disease, which has killed at least 345,000 people around the world and bound millions to their homes, an estimated 2,700 flights operated in India daily.
Flights to and from West Bengal will resume on May 28 and those operating from Andhra Pradesh will commence from May 26. “Major flight cancellations happened due to this, several flights were scheduled to these states that had to be cancelled after yesterday’s announcements. Overall, nearly 500 flights scheduled for Monday were cancelled,” a civil aviation ministry official said, requesting anonymity.
Responding on the state of affairs on the first day of operations, a Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) official said: “All of us are struggling to get it (flights) going. There are multiple stakeholders and multiple obligations.”
Instead of following the national guidelines issued by the Union government for all departing and disembarking passengers, many of the states have chosen to set their own rules: Karnataka requires mandatory institutional quarantine for passengers from worst-affected states, while Punjab and Meghalaya have made a swab test mandatory for arrivals.
Several states said passengers will be taken to a facility only if they show symptoms of fever or cough — in line with Union government guidelines released on Sunday — and some decided to additionally mandate or suggest self-isolation for either 14 or 28 days, even if a traveller is asymptomatic. Some other states, such as Mizoram and Himachal Pradesh, said that only state residents will be allowed to enter the city from the airports.
Three states — Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu — have requested the Union government to reconsider the decision to allow domestic flight operations to resume as it could lead to a spike in infections.
After holding several discussions with these states and airline representatives to resume operations a day earlier, the civil aviation minister on Monday tweeted: “Indians soar in the skies again!” He tweeted images of aircraft being tracked on flight tracking app Flightradar24, adding: “[It] shows how our skies look busy again as domestic civil aviation recommences…”
The confusion on state-level restrictions over the last three days led to several queries from passengers on rebooking and cancellation, according to travel website MakeMyTrip. “Lack of clarity and confusion on state-level restrictions and quarantine guidelines have resulted into a significant increase in customer queries on our platform, over the last three days. The-last minute updates from the states about travel restrictions has left many flyers anxious with most enquiries coming to us around rebooking options, cancellation and refund polices of respective airlines,” a spokesperson for MakeMyTrip said.
State-run Air India said that due to some last-minute decisions on general flight operations to certain states, flight schedules were redrawn late on Sunday evening by airlines, which could have led to some inconvenience to passengers. “Air India is doing its best to extend all support to its esteemed pax according top-most priority to all safety norms and in sync with the flight movement and operational issues prevailing throughout its network,” said an airline spokesperson.
Experts said potential travellers are likely to be deterred by a lack of clarity on quarantine rules in different states.
“It’s unfortunate there was no effective coordination between the states and central government. Each state has come out with its own rules, which is confusing and will compel only a few to fly,” aviation law expert Nitin Sarin, a managing partner at Sarin & Co, told Reuters.
Among those who travelled on Monday was Union minister DV Sadananda Gowda, who sparked a controversy by not undergoing quarantine on arrival in Bengaluru a Delhi flight. He said he came under the exempted category, being incharge of pharmaceuticals, an essential sector.