Indian aviation regulator is framing a set of protocols to ensure that distancing is measured in confined places like aircraft and airport once air transport resumes. Airlines will have to follow the protocols till the World Health Organisation declares the outbreak over which according to the agency’s own estimate is months away.
The measures executive fear could make return to normalcy painful for a sector which has been the worst effected due to the outbreak and a consequential lockdown.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced 21-days lockdown on March 25-one of the most stringent measures any country has taken to control the outbreak of the virus. The government is likely to remove the ban in phases for both domestic and international flights in order to prevent crowding at airports.
The Standard Operating Procedure being formulated by DGCA will make it mandatory for airlines to keep all middle seats and last row empty to minimise contact between individuals. This means for a 186-seater Airbus A320 jet- that country’s largest airline IndiGo fly, it can only sell 106 seats.
“While keeping the middle seat empty is important to ensure social distancing inside the aircraft, the last three rows will have to be kept empty in order to isolate a passenger if he or she develops symptoms mid-air,” said a government official.
Airlines will also be asked to minimise on-board services in order to prevent close contact between cabin crew and passengers. Pre-packaged dry foods will be kept in passenger seats prior to the boarding while airlines may encourage flyers to carry their own food.
In order to prevent crowding at the airports, the regulator is mulling drastic measures including ban of duty free sales at airports. Other measures will include boarding of only three rows at the same time instead of bulk boarding in order to prevent queue near boarding gate or aerobridge. Airports will have to ensure a two metre distancing during check-in and security check.
“It’s easy to maintain social distancing in open spaces. But in confined spaces like aircraft, it’s important to take some measures to allow a degree of separation between them,” the official said.
Indian airports will also be asked to make thermal checking of passengers compulsory and limit customer touchpoints and. Checking a person’s temperature using thermal imaging started to appear at Asian and Middle Eastern airports shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. “Thermal screening of all passengers will be there for some time until the virus is declared controlled. Airports will be asked to take suitable step,” a health ministry official said.
Industry executives say that such stringent measures will make it unviable for the airlines to operate and may see a drastic increase in air fare.
According to aviation consultancy firm CAPA India’s aviation industry is expected to post losses of $3-3.6 billion in the June quarter because of the outbreak. Falling demand would leave Indian carriers with 200-250 surplus planes over the next 6-12 months, it said.
“It’s better to keep the aircraft grounded than operating it with 80 seats less. Airlines didn’t make money with aircraft 90 percent full,” said an airline official
But at a time when there is no demand from customers, it will be very hard to increase fare, the executive said.
“If I was flying 180 seats between Delhi to Mumbai charging a minimum fare of Rs 5,000, reduction of 80 seats will mean that the minimum fare should be Rs 10,000. In such times who will pay that to fly,” the official said. His company has been able to sell 15 tickets in last four days.