Confusion in air

The resumption of domestic air travel in India has proved to be fraught with difficulties. After weeks of suspension of commercial flying due to the pandemic, one-third of regular flights were supposed to reopen on Monday, with due precautions being taken. However, there were scenes of chaos instead — over 80 flights were cancelled at Delhi airport alone. Many of the passengers found themselves without information of how or whether their bookings would be honoured. The trouble arose because the Union civil aviation ministry failed to obtain consent from various state governments involved before directing a resumption of air travel. This has placed travellers and airlines in difficulty, and should have been avoided. It should be clear that under these circumstances, neither rail nor air connections can be unilaterally resumed without consultation with and the assent of the receiving state government. Instead of a uniform approach, the response has to be differentiated in view of the specific Covid-19 risk perception of a state. At the end of the day, it is the states that are managing the Covid crisis on the ground. Some of course have additional problems — Kolkata has just been wracked by a once-in-a-generation storm and, therefore, the airport may be even slower to resume than the rest.

More co-ordination between the Union government and the states is needed on several other aspects of inter-state travel. Besides cancellations, there was confusion over quarantine procedures too. Most of the state governments decided to put the passengers arriving from other states in an institutional quarantine of seven to 14 days. Others made home quarantine for a fortnight mandatory for the travellers. If one rule across the country is impossible or inadvisable, at the very least complete transparency and lucidity are needed. Travellers should be informed well in advance what their quarantine requirements will be so that they can decide about travelling. If some states impose the full weeks-long quarantine period, then clearly short business trips will be impossible — and that should be amply clear beforehand. 

Reports coming in from various airports indicate that airport authorities and airlines have taken measures to enforce social distancing at the terminals. Yet that good work may well be undone by the lack of such regulations on board — many flights are departing relatively crowded. If railway chair-class coaches were directed to leave the middle seat empty, it is far from clear why airlines did not receive the same direction. This is perhaps linked to the desire to keep them afloat. But the correct approach would have been to prioritise public health, ensure that social distancing was maintained even on board, and then allow airlines to fix prices at a rate that would be remunerative. Instead, the government made the mistake of trying to fix a band for prices. This approach by the ministry will satisfy neither the objective of managing the transmission of Covid-19 nor ensure that airlines can minimise their financial turbulence. Clearly, more work has to be done by the Union government and particularly the civil aviation ministry to ensure that air travel in the time of the pandemic is properly regulated. Given the amount of time available to plan for the re-opening, this should have been done already. Hopefully, the resumption of international travel will not be associated with such confusion.

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