Lockdown | Air Travel Will Cost More: Ex-Air India Exec Director

Days of cheap air travel are over, said aviation expert Jitender Bhargava.

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What would it be like to travel by air post lockdown? Will social distancing be a new normal on flights? Will air travel become expensive? Will the next several months be a survival battle for he aviation industry? For answers to all these questions, The Quint interviewed former executive director of Air India and aviation expert Jitender Bhargava.

When will India’s airlines start flying again?

Lockdown will be not lifted totally soon. I am surprised at over-enthusiasm of India’s private carriers in wanting to resume operations. They may resume flights but will they get passengers? Now are you expecting a different set of rules for air passengers... that I will take a flight from city A and get down at city B and walk home? It is very unlikely to happen. So why do they want to operate flights? One reason could be - when the lockdown was imposed, people got stranded in different cities and could not reach home and they could be checking with the airlines as to when are they starting flights. So airlines may have a false impression that there is demand. But that will be temporary. For sustainable flight operation I don’t foresee any future. They are already losing money and will lose more.

Will social distancing be the ‘new normal’ on flights?

The Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) has informed the Ministry of Civil Aviation about what needs to be done when flights resume. For instance - the middle seat be left vacant to have social distancing between two passengers. The last three rows in every flight be left vacant. If there is a suspected infected case on board, these rows can be used as an isolation ward. No food and drink to be served to minimize contact between crew and passengers.

But airlines are already saying that leaving the middle seat vacant will cause a big loss of income. Airline are offering to give all passengers gloves and masks as a measure to ensure safety. But with over a hundred passengers on board, what if one careless passenger takes off his/her mask or is not willing to adhere to this norm, can the airline risk the safety of other passengers?

Will air travel be more expensive in the future? Why?

Let’s take the example of IndiGo, India’s largest domestic player and the most profitable airline. Now they had to leave 35-40% seats vacant, they will have to raise fares for the rest of the seats to remain profitable. So, the days of cheap (air) travel are over.

There is no normalcy on the horizon. Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA) estimates Indian carriers will have 250 aircraft sitting idle. My estimate is much more. All airlines in India together have 650 aircraft, but we are not likely to need even 300 aircraft.

Why do you feel air travel will fall in the future?

After the lockdown is over, with the experience of work-from-home and video conferencing having been successfully tested, there will be a natural propensity on the part of corporates to reduce air travel to the extent feasible. They will also not want senior management personnel to take any risks till normalcy is restored.

A recent International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) survey, with regular air travellers had 60% respondents planning air travel 2 months after COVID-19 is contained. For the remaining 40% it was 6 months!

What will air travel be like in the future? What precautions would passengers have to take?

You will take much longer time at the airport before boarding a flight. All stages of checks will take longer because of social distancing. Would you risk 90 other passengers because one passenger doesn’t want to be turned back because he is showing some symptoms which may or may not be of Coronavirus. But precautions must be taken and airlines will be advised to do so because it is government’s responsibility to take care of you when you get infected with Coronavirus.

What kind of losses will airlines face?

There are three aspects to this - One, whether you operate the aircraft or not, you still have to pay lease rent, you have to pay the employees. The second aspect is airlines will hasten to return any aircraft that have a lease expiring soon. The third aspect is that most Indian airlines have been ordering a large number of aircraft. Manufacturers must be insisting that they take delivery. For how long that be deferred?

Then there are those airlines, who have large chunk of flight operations to international destinations. Foreign countries are not going to allow people coming from outside. So keeping aircraft grounded is going to cost all airlines enormously.

Will airlines be forced to shut down?

Eight carriers across the world have collapsed, so it’s hard to say how many will survive (in India). But yes number of carriers will see collapses because of the huge demand destruction that we are going to witness.

The whole scenario is very scary because it is an unprecedented situation. The closest similar situation that one can think of is the 9/11. But airlines came forward with innovations and took care of security issues. Maybe in 6 months to 1 year, but airlines will come out with innovative measures on how to deal with the situation.

Can the Indian government help the aviation industry?

Many countries in the world have come out with bailout packages. But considering Indian government’s financial situation you cannot single out the airline industry for assistance. Some help could be forthcoming but to expect a total bailout, that’s not feasible. At best would be a tax deferment.

Is the ‘sale’ of Air India impossible now?

The disinvestment of Indian Airlines can be put in cold storage. The airlines who could have been potential acquirers of Air India, are now in a bad state. Saddled with surplus capacity, why will they spend money to acquire Air India?

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