India to suspend domestic flights, seeks to lock down coronavirus spread

This is the first time, India has effected a total shutdown of its air transport. A similar action was taken by United States of America after the terror attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September, 2001. Photo: Dalip Kumar
To strengthen the nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus, India has banned air travel from Wednesday.  The prohibition will stay till midnight, March 31. The move is the latest in a round of steps, including banning bus and railway travel, the government has taken. 

This is the first time India has effected a total shutdown of air transport. The United States did it after the terror attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared corona virus a pandemic. The government used a clause in the Aircraft Act, 1934, to suspend air travel.

“Operations of domestic scheduled commercial airlines shall cease with effective from the midnight of 11:59 PM on 24 March. Airlines have to plan operations so as to land at their destination before 11:59 PM on 24 March (sic),” a notification by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation sent to airlines said.

Sources aware of the development said there was much deliberation between different arms of the government on this. 

“Airlines themselves were curtailing flights. So we kept waiting. But by the end of the day a decision was taken to ban as the spread was increasing,” said a government official.

A worker sprays disinfectant inside the cabin of a Lion Air passenger jet as a precaution against the new coronavirus, at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia

The decision finally was taken at the level of the Prime Minister’s Office and the multi-ministerial team, which includes officials from the ministries of health, civil aviation, and home.

“The government clearly sees heightened risks related to the COVID-19 virus and is determined to take unprecedented action to slow its transmission. This is the right decision in the prevailing circumstances. 

For airlines, this suspension coincides with what can only be described as a destruction of demand in the last few days,” said Kapil Kaul, chief executive officer, CAPA, which is an aviation consultant.

Kaul said the disruption aviation was experiencing would leave an impact well beyond 2020-21 unless the government lent support. The government is planning an extensive relief package for the aviation sector. Government sources part of forming the relief package said there would be multiple aspects to the relief package in order to take care of the reduced cash flow of airlines.

Primary measures will be extending two-month fuel credit from oil-marketing companies, waiving landing, parking charges and soft loan and waiver of all taxes from jet fuel like excise duty, value added tax. Simultaneously, the government will also ask banks to offer soft loans to airlines at 1 or 1.5 percent interest rate from banks based in Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT).

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