Domestic air travel resumed on Monday after two months even as a number of states were unenthusiastic about opening up their airports in view of rising COVID-19 cases causing around 630 flights to be cancelled. According to aviation industry sources, around 630 domestic flights of Monday were cancelled due to the Centre's Sunday night announcement that there would be no flights in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, and limited operations at major airports such as Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad.
Consequently, many passengers reached the airports on Monday only to be told by the airline staff that their flights have been cancelled. Many people took to social media to vent their anger. Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said on Monday evening, "From no domestic passenger flights yesterday to 532 flights and 39,231 passengers today, 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."
According to a source, on May 22, bookings had opened for around 1,100 domestic flights for Monday. The airlines, which were allowed to operate one-third of their pre-lockdown domestic services, have been busy since Sunday night to further rework their flight schedules. The first flight on Monday took off from Delhi for Pune at 4.45 am under strict regulations recommended by civil aviation authorities. The first flight from Mumbai was to Patna at 6.45 am.
States like Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, which are home to some of the busiest airports in the country, were reluctant to allow domestic flight services from their airports, citing swelling COVID-19 cases there. West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh governments did not relent to the requests by the Civil Aviation Ministry to allow flight services from Monday.
It was decided on Sunday that Kolkata and Bagdogra airports in cyclone-hit West Bengal will not operate any domestic flight between May 25 and 27 but will handle 20 flights each daily from May 28.
Moreover, Vijayawada and Vizag airports in Andhra Pradesh will handle just 20 per cent of their pre-lockdown flights from May 26. Mumbai airport, which is India's second busiest airport, will handle only 50 flights daily from Monday, the Centre said, adding Chennai airport will see only 25 arrivals per day.
There were no limits set on departures from Chennai airport. Moreover, Hyderabad in Telangana will handle just 30 flights every day from Monday, the government said. IndiGo president and chief operating officer Wolfgang Prock-Schauer visited the Delhi airport to observe operations on Monday. He said the airline's operations were running smoothly and passengers were feeling relaxed as there was much less air traffic on Monday.
"We visited some of the boarding gates. Passengers are well informed (about rules and regulations). Despite the short lead time we got from the central authorities and the states, we were able to disseminate this information," he added.
An IndiGo spokesperson said 20,000 passengers will travel on Monday on board the airline's flights. SpiceJet said its first flight on Monday took off from Ahmedabad at 6.05 am and reached Delhi at 7.10 am. The budget carrier said it also operated 20 flights on Monday on routes awarded under the government's regional connectivity UDAN scheme.
SpiceJet chairman and managing director Ajay Singh said,"We are delighted to have resumed our flight operations in a completely smooth manner and by following every safety guideline and protocol laid down by the government." Airlines were jittery in resuming services as multiple states have put in place separate norms and conditions for quarantining passengers arriving there by domestic flights.
With the aviation sector reeling under severe stress due to the coronavirus-triggered lockdown that began on March 25, the government had last week announced the resumption of domestic flight services from May 25 under specific rules and guidelines.
It had set a cap on ticket pricing, made wearing of face masks by passengers mandatory, no food served onboard planes and making available details of medical conditions by travellers through the Aarogya Setu app or by filling up of a self-declaration form.
The app gives colour-coded designation to users according to their health status and travel history. It helps the users know if they were near anyone who tested COVID-19 positive. Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bihar, Punjab, Assam and Andhra Pradesh, among others, have announced their own quarantine measures for passengers arriving at their airports. Some states have decided to put passengers in institutional quarantine while several others have talked about putting them in-home quarantine.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri on Saturday had questioned the need for quarantine if a passenger shows green status on the Aarogya Setu app. The green status signifies that a passenger is safe. The Maharashtra government had requested the Centre on Sunday to keep air services in the state at a minimum possible level.
"It has been a long day of hard negotiations with various state govts to recommence civil aviation operations in the country," Puri tweeted on Sunday night, adding, "Except Andhra Pradesh which will start on 26/5 and West Bengal on 28/5, domestic flights will recommence across the country from tomorrow (Monday)."