Indian skies will open up for domestic passenger flights from Monday after a gap of two months but there was confusion following the imposition of own set of conditions and rules by several states which are at odds with each other.
Many states like Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu were opposed to opening up of their airports in view of rising cases of the coronavirus infection, making it difficult for the airlines as well as the civil aviation authorities to resume services.
Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are home to some of the busiest airports in terms of passenger traffic. Amidst West Bengal govt raising doubts about central government's decision to restart flights, Kolkata Airport has announced they will not operate any flights till May 28 as they have asked govt to stop flights till May 30.
Mumbai Airport, on the other hand, will only operate 25 flights for arrival and 25 for departure as against 380 flights by Delhi Airport. Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said on Twitter on Sunday that it is "extremely ill-advised" to reopen airports in red zones.
Echoing similar sentiments, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said she will urge the Centre to postpone the resumption of domestic flight services at Kolkata and Bagdogra airports by a few days.
On Sunday afternoon, AirAsia India said on Twitter that all passengers must read the health protocols of the destination states and it would "not be responsible for repatriating or bearing any quarantine or related costs of any guests".
In the midst of uncertainty and confusion, representatives of airlines and several states held multiple meetings with top officials of the Civil Aviation Ministry on Sunday covering a range of contentious issues like quarantine rules for flyers and standard operating procedures for leading airports, officials said.
The focus of the deliberations was to have uniform quarantine rules following the announcement of separate conditions by various state governments. However, it is not immediately clear whether uniform quarantine rules as envisaged could be finalised in the meetings.
Officials said the first flight on Monday is scheduled to depart from Mumbai for Patna at 4.20 AM. Similarly, the first flight from Delhi airport would depart for Kolkata at 4.30 AM. Both flights are from IndiGo airline.
At the same time, they did not rule out a change in the schedule if the West Bengal government unilaterally decides not to allow flight operations.
As airlines were making preparations to resume their operation, scores of pilots and first officers PTI spoke to seem to be concerned about the lack of clarity on quarantine requirements for them. Many of them raised concerns over issues like quarantine procedures, personal and family safety, and flying into regions badly hit by the pandemic.
"There is no clarity on whether I need to go into home quarantine for 14 days after returning to my base or show up for duty on Monday," a pilot said, requesting anonymity.
The government last week announced the resumption of domestic flight services from May under specific rules and guidelines like a cap on ticket pricing, wearing of face masks by passengers, no food served onboard planes and making available details of medical conditions by travellers through Aarogya Setu app or by filling up of a self-declaration form.
The government's decision came as the aviation sector was reeling under severe stress triggered by the coronavirus lockdown that began on March 25.
However, many states expressed serious reservations about the Centre's decision to start flight services. Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bihar, Punjab, Assam and Andhra Pradesh have announced their respective quarantine measures for passengers arriving at their airports.
Some states decided to put passengers on mandatory institutional quarantine while several others talked about putting them under home quarantine.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri on Saturday questioned the need for quarantine if a passenger is shown green status in Aarogya Setu app. The green status signifies that a passenger is safe.
However, as the states remained adamant on the matter, the central government is trying to create coherence in quarantine rules for flyers, officials said.
They said bookings have been opened for around 1,050 domestic flights that will operate on Monday.
Several executives from a number of airlines said since Mumbai and Kolkata airports handle a significant share of domestic flights, the operators are expecting the Centre to clarify the "prevailing confusion" relating to quarantine.
"Clarity is required on matters regarding quarantine and flights to Mumbai and Kolkata as it is affecting our bookings. Passengers are reluctant to book in such an environment," said an executive of a low cost carrier.
The Jammu and Kashmir government said on Saturday that all incoming passengers will have to undergo "administrative quarantine" for a fortnight.
Similarly, the Kerala government said on Friday that all flyers will be put into 14 days' home quarantine and that it has made an exception for those coming for business purposes or for a short duration.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had said all incoming passengers will be put in home quarantine for 14 days while the Bihar government said that travellers will be put on "paid quarantine" for the same period.
Passengers coming to Andhra Pradesh would be put under home quarantine, said the state government, adding that once their test results for COVID-19 come negative, they will be relieved from quarantine.
The Assam government on Friday said it will be putting flyers on a 14-day quarantine. The passengers might be distributed equally in home quarantine and government quarantine, it clarified.
Karnataka government's health ministry made it clear said that anyone coming from states where there is "high prevalence" of COVID-19 will be kept in institutional quarantine for seven days and if tested COVID-negative, the passenger will have to spend the next seven days in home quarantine.
Karnataka has classified Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh as "high prevalence" states.
The passengers coming through remaining states in the country to Karnataka will have to undergo 14 days of home quarantine.
However, the Karnataka health department clarified that special cases where businessmen are coming for urgent work will not require to undergo any quarantine if they bring test results that are not more than two days old and show them COVID-negative.
Puri's announcement on Wednesday that airlines will resume domestic passenger flights from Monday came as a big breather for the aviation sector.
Saujanya Shrivastava, Chief Operating Officer - Flights, MakeMyTrip and Goibibo, said: "With domestic flights taking off after 61 days of lockdown, there is an understandable apprehension amongst flyers. That said, we expect the situation to smoothen out as flyers gradually get attuned to the new safety protocols."
Aloke Bajpai, Co-founder and CEO of Ixigo, a flight booking platform, said,"There is still no official directive from state governments or airlines regarding quarantine protocols for different cities. We are closely monitoring the situation and will update our users on any official mandate which might affect their travel plan."
In the meantime, the Health Ministry on Sunday issued guidelines for domestic travel, advising passengers to download the Aarogya Setu app on their mobile devices and asking states to ensure thermal screening at the departure point of airports, railway stations and bus terminals.
Asymptomatic passengers should be permitted to travel after being asked to self-monitor for 14 days, the ministry said.
Dos and Don'ts shall be provided along with tickets to travellers by the agencies concerned, said the ministry's guidelines for domestic travel (air/train/inter-state bus travel).