By Vivek Pattanayak in Bhubaneswar, May 29, 2020: The Covid-19 virus has battered the air transport sector like never before by grounding planes for more than two months leading to layoffs, bankruptcies and rescue plans.

The damage to the air sector extends beyond the airlines with US plane manufacturer Boeing announcing 16,000 layoffs. In the engine sector, US manufacturer General Electric and the UK’s Rolls-Royce have also slashed 12,600 and 9,000 jobs respectively.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has estimated global airlines will lose $314 billion in 2020 revenues. That’s a 55 percent dive compared to 2019, and air traffic will not bounce back until 2023, the IATA says.

However, in contrast to the dramatic drop in passenger demand, air cargo operations are surging to respond to calls to move essential supplies to tackle the COVID pandemic.

However, while some countries shut down air services, others continued to operate despite the risks. India stopped air travel on March 25 and partially reopened the domestic aviation sector two months later on May 25. The US, which never fully halted operations, left it to airlines to impose norms or follow local restrictions, while only issuing some advisories.

Although there were some cancellations on the first day and no wonder some consequent disappointments among the people, the country should appreciate that air transport sector of India which includes airlines, airports, air navigation services and regulator and the Ministry, have done a commendable job to restart the flights in spite of headwinds with so much uncertainties around that too in the environment of fear and nervousness.

The civil aviation sector has been playing a significant role in the vibrancy of the Indian economy for many years. Volume of traffic had reached such a level which had understandably raised hopes that the country could occupy a dominant position in the global aviation in the foreseeable future. This hope has been jolted by the Covid-19 crisis.

Towards the economy, air transport not only provides employment to huge number of people directly, it also gives job opportunity equally to a significant number indirectly. Air transport industry propels tourism, both domestic and international. Hotel industry and travel agencies need tourists and travelers for their survival and sustenance. Volume of cargo traffic in the belly of the aircraft of passenger carrier is also quite impressive.

Besides, the meteorological service also gains a lot from the aircraft movement. Business travel also contributes greatly to the economy. Even as the remote business meetings through video conferences, Webinar and other IT applications are taking place, it is undeniable that they cannot replace face to face exchanges, field level visits and inspections in the immediate future.

For last several years with introduction of budget airlines in the world and an attempt in India to start innovative programme like UDAN creating regional connectivity, air transport has ceased to be in the luxury sector. Gone are the days when the select few like rich, wealthy, business and corporate executives, top political leaders and senior civil servants could travel by air. In the immediate pre-Covid scenario it was not the case any longer. It had become almost normal to see the people belonging the lower middle class traveling by air.

Of course, lockdown brought an abrupt suspension of flights. Simultaneously the railway and road transport came to a grinding halt. In the absence of transport service, all economic activities suffered damage whose loss in monetary values has been immense. However, ferry flights and special flights for medical and essential supplies continued in all parts of the world including India.

Nevertheless, air transport sector, contributing to trade, commerce, business and economic activities and emergency service, should restart its operation in the right earnest with no loss of time. After WHO has stated that virus would remain for some time to come and vaccine is no where in sight, there is increasing realization in certain parts of the world that people would have to live with this hazard by following prescribed precautions. Now to reopen the economy air transport which plays a catalytic agent must be given high priority.

It is very well recognized that air transport is a vector of the disease, so also the railway and road transport service. Public health safety measures like social distancing, using of masks, gloves, and personalized protection equipment (PPE), sanitizers, regular and frequent hand washing with soap, sanitization of aircraft, airports, baggage and toilet facilities must be strictly followed on resumption of flights.

Even some airlines have envisaged maintaining safe distance among the passengers in seat allocation which may even result in carrying not full load. This undoubtedly would affect viability of commercial aircraft operation. Fortunately, the fuel price has dropped abnormally. Significant airline cost is attributed to fuel cost.

Suggestions have been given by Dr. Sanat Kaul, the Chairman of International Foundation for Aviation Development (India Chapter), an aviation think-tank that passengers willing to travel should obtain health certificate from the government medical centers or agencies after going through tests on Covid.

Till the mid-eighties of the last century, health counters were there in addition to immigration and customs checks. When passengers come from the yellow fever countries, they are required to obtain health certificate. This is an international practice.

Viability of the operations of airlines would fluctuate with fuel price. Extra cost associated with public health measures will be an additional burden. Before lockdown most of the airlines were on a shoestring surplus. Some also experienced deficits. With closure of operation after lockdown, losses have mounted.

Therefore, the airlines need bail out packages like moratorium on loan repayment, subventions or low interest loan and tax reliefs for a certain period. Although there is suggestion for exemption of landing charges, parking fees and route navigation charges, it may not be feasible since many airports have been corporatized and privatized. Their viability would be at stake. Further Airport Authority of India which collects route navigation charges is also autonomous corporatized body. What ever subventions and reliefs need to be given should come from the central government. In the unusual time, unorthodox steps are warranted.

Serious endeavour should be made to recommence international flights for which bilateral negotiations with relevant countries be initiated. Health check can be a ticklish issue which must be resolved bilaterally. India should at the same time raise the issue at the level of International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the specialized agency of the United Nations.

This is the multilateral forum where the exchange of views does take place among the countries before finalization of air transport regulations. Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) for facilitation of passengers prescribed by ICAO include health procedures. In the context of the pandemic these regulations need urgent review before the countries resume international flights.

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