New Delhi, Mar 24: The domestic aviation sector in India has recovered significantly in the last one year since the lockdown was first announced, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create speed breakers such as the recent decisions by many states to reintroduce stringent testing and quarantine requirements for air travellers to curb the new wave of the virus. However, unlike domestic market, international air travel from India is far from recovery as only special flights are permitted currently from India under air bubble arrangements formed with approximately 27 countries.
International passenger traffic in India fell by 90.56 per cent to 18.55 lakh in March-December period of 2020. On March 22 last year, the Narendra Modi government observed a ‘Janta curfew’ to curb the spread of the coronavirus. India suspended scheduled international flights from the next day. Two days after that, the country went into a complete lockdown, suspending even the scheduled domestic flights.
The lockdown and pandemic-related travel restrictions badly hit the Indian airlines. Revenues of major Indian scheduled carriers fell from Rs 46,711 crore during April-September 2019 to about Rs 11,810 crore during the same period in 2020, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri told the Rajya Sabha last month. Desperate to survive, all major airlines in India have taken drastic measures in the last one year such as firing workers, cutting salaries and sending employees on leave without pay. The major Indian carriers’ full time and contractual employment was 74,887 as on March 31 last year, which fell to 67,906 by September 30, Puri said in the Rajya Sabha.
Indian airlines are currently operating around 70-75 per cent of their pre-COVID domestic flights. India allows domestic carriers to operate maximum 80 per cent of their pre-COVID domestic flights currently. This cap is unlikely to go soon as a new wave of the virus is spreading in certain states. “Last few days have seen a decline in the number of air passengers largely due to restrictions & imposition of compulsory RT-PCR test by various states. Due to this, we have decided to retain the permissible limit to 80 per cent of schedule,” Civil Aviation Minister Puri said a few days back on Twitter.
For example, Rajasthan announced on Sunday all passengers coming to the state from March 25 onward will need to bring COVID-negative report from a test done within 72 hours of the journey. The doubling time of COVID-19 cases in India has decreased from 504.4 days on March 1 to 202.3 days on March 23, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday, highlighting that six states have reported a surge in daily new cases and together account for 80.90 per cent of the new infections reported in a day.
Aviation consultancy firm CAPA estimated in October last year that just 50-60 million air passengers — 40-50 million domestic and less than 10 million international — would travel in 2020-21. In 2019-20, approximately 205 million air passengers — 140 million domestic and 65 million international — travelled in India.
The pandemic has also slowed the disinvestment process of Air India. After its unsuccessful attempt to sell the national carrier in 2018, the government in January last year restarted the divestment process but the pandemic forced it to extend the date for submission of expression of interest (EOI) five times.
The last date of EOI submission was December 14. The government has received multiple EOIs. It is yet to announce the name of qualified bidders.