As India's Covid situation improves, MoCA allows airlines to hike flight capacity

The government had cut flight capacity by 30% on May 28 as falling demand endangered airlines' viability

As India's Covid situation improves, MoCA allows airlines to hike flight capacity
Representative image. Source: Unsplash/Vivek Doshi

The Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) has raised the capacity of domestic flights from 50% to 65% of pre-Covid levels. This means that airlines can now operate a maximum of 65% of their pre-Covid domestic flights. This comes as the Covid situation in India, which had reached alarming proportions in April-May, has shown distinct signs of improvement. 

"Considering the increasing passengers' demand for domestic air travel, the capacity of domestic civil aviation operations will be increased to 65% from 50% from the date of issue of this order and up to 31.07.2021 or until further orders," the MoCA stated. 

Since the domestic aviation sector was reopened after a two-month gap following the Covid-induced lockdown, the MoCA has adjusted the flight capacity periodically. When the domestic sector was reopened on May 25 last year, airlines were allowed to operate at only 33% capacity. However, airlines were operating at only 25% in reality, according to a Business Today report. As domestic traffic started to pick up, the government raised the capacity limit to 45% by the end of June and to 60% in September. In November, airlines were allowed to hike capacity to 70%, and then on December 3, it was raised to 80%. 

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri remained bullish about the recovery of Indian aviation and believed that a return to pre-Covid traffic numbers was just around the corner. During the festive season, demand for air travel added cheer to the sector, and India's aggressive vaccination drive held out a lot of hope. There were talks that the airlines may soon be allowed to run at full capacity. This confidence stemmed from the fact that domestic air traffic in India was seen to be inching towards pre-Covid normalcy, giving hope that the aviation industry in the country would soon shake off the recession that it was going through. 

"2,73,845 passengers on 2,179 flights yesterday is a new high since domestic flights resumed on 25 May 2020. This takes us even closer to the pre-Covid numbers. Flying has emerged as the chosen mode of transport which offers efficiency, safety and predictability," Puri tweeted on January 11. Total footfall at airports was nearly five-and-a-half lakh.

According to the then Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola, the domestic civil aviation sector was expected to return to normal in two-to-three months.

Also read: Jyotiraditya Scindia faces 12 major challenges in civil aviation ministry cockpit

"The sector remained resilient during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, but I don't think that the bad period is over. It will take the next two-to-three months for the country's domestic civil aviation sector to return to its normal. Big countries like India, which have a huge domestic market, are where the future of aviation lies," he said during a webinar organised by the industry body Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

However, the airlines were cautious about running at full capacity even though the government seemed much more optimistic about the sector regaining pre-Covid health. In fact, the airlines told the government that they would not be able to operate at full capacity without clarity on the return of traffic. They asked the government to delay such a move, implying that they would not be able to profitably deploy any more capacity.

The second wave of Covid and the resultant restrictions imposed on air travel by various states and the general unwillingness of the flyers to travel tended to undo all the gains made by the industry over a year or so. Therefore, in April, flight capacity was kept fixed at 80% of the pre-Covid numbers till 11.59 pm on May 31.

However, on May 28 itself, the government, faced with a drastic downturn in demand, decided to cut flight capacity sharply and make it 50% of pre-Covid levels. This was done as plummeting demand impacted airlines' passenger load factor (PLF), or the percentage of a plane's available seating capacity that is occupied. This in turn endangered the viability of airlines. The new rule was planned to come into effect from June 1 and last till July 31, The Hindu reported. 

Also read: India's domestic air traffic hits new 'high', pre-Covid numbers may not be far away

On May 31, 2021, airport footfall stood at 1,40,031, according to MoCA data. There were only 1,684 aircraft movements. The traffic figures were alarmingly close to what they were exactly a year back. 

Now, the upward revision in flight capacity provides renewed hope that the Indian aviation sector is back on the recovery path. "Domestic aviation operations continue with all Covid protocols in place. Number of domestic passengers increases as flying emerges as a preferred, safe and time-saving mode of transport. On 4 July 2021 - 1,74,905 passengers on 1,467 flights. Total flight movements: 2,938," Puri tweeted on July 5.

According to Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) data, India reported less than 40,000 new cases of Covid over 24 hours on July 5. The active caseload of the country declined to 4,82,071 and active cases were just 1.58% of total cases. The recovery rate jumped to 97.11% and daily recoveries continued to outnumber daily new cases for the 53rd day on the trot.

(Cover image courtesy Unsplash/Vivek Doshi)