Covid surge forces India to cancel meals on domestic flights under 2 hours

The concern is that lowering or removing masks while eating or drinking could be a cause for the spread of the coronavirus

Covid surge forces India to cancel meals on domestic flights under 2 hours
In-flight meal served by Air India. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Abhinav619

Domestic passengers on flights that have a duration of under two hours would not be served meals and beverages onboard, the ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) has decided. However, there is still no restriction on in-flight meal service on international flights. 

The ministry has reviewed onboard meal services on domestic flights and put a few more restrictions on them in view of the worsening Covid-19 situation. The concern is that lowering or removing masks while eating or drinking could be a cause for the spread of the coronavirus. The changed rules with respect to in-flight meals would come into effect from today (April 15, 2021). 

The MoCA, in its order dated April 12, 2021, said that airlines may serve pre-packed snacks/meals/beverages according to their policy where the flight duration is two hours or more. The earlier policy did not specify the flight duration but merely stated that airlines may serve pre-packed meals and beverages depending upon the duration of the flight. 

However, certain safety norms are to be followed by the airlines while serving food and drinks on board. For example, in all classes, tray set-ups, plates and cutlery have to be completely disposable with no reuse, or cleaned and disinfected rotables would be used.  

"Used disposable trays/crockeries/cutleries shall not be reused. Used rotables shall be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before reuse," the MoCA office memorandum stated. 

The directive also said that in all classes, tea, coffee, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages would be served only in disposable cans/containers/bottles/glasses. Serving beverages by pouring them in containers has been strictly prohibited and they would only be served in single-use disposable units. 

Meal served on a Vistara flight. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/M.soumen

At the end of the meal service, the crew would be required to throw away all the disposable and rotable meal trays/plates/cutleries/beverage bottles/cans/glasses in trash bags or carts. The crew have to mandatorily wear fresh sets of gloves for every meal or beverage service. 

The passengers would be informed of the in-flight meal/beverage service protocols for strict compliance before the start of service through passenger announcements.  

The new directives have come with another added stipulation: "The servicing of in-flight meals to be staggered among the adjacent seats as far as possible." 

Also read: India sounds fresh alert as 3 mutant coronavirus strains hit 145 countries

The rules regarding in-flight meal services were laid down through an order dated May 21, 2020, a few days before the domestic sector was reopened following a two-month break to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Those provisions were subsequently amended on August 27, 2020.

Further review and amendment became necessary in view of the fast-changing situation in which the coronavirus have adopted mutant forms and is seen to be returning with renewed force even as the world pushes ahead with vaccinations. 

The ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW) had stated in its guidelines on February 17 that there was increasing evidence that mutant strains of the coronavirus were driving the pandemic in their countries of origin. Three mutant coronavirus variants -- the UK variant, South Africa variant and Brazil variant were detected in 86, 44 and 15 countries respectively, the MoHFW had warned.

Consequently, the Indian government introduced stricter restrictions on international flyers, while regular scheduled commercial international flights continue to be suspended for over a year now.

Airlines were asked to identify travellers arriving from or transiting through the UK, South Africa and Brazil and segregate them during the journey and while deboarding.

Meal and beverage served on an IndiGo flight. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/V Malik

In December last year, India had put a temporary ban on UK flights in the wake of the emergence in the UK of the new coronavirus strain, which was reported to be more infectious than the previous variant. Despite the curbs, people in India have been found to be carrying the three deadly mutant strains.    

What is also causing a lot of alarm in India is a Covid-19 surge since February. The country has been setting new records of a daily surge in Covid-19 cases at frequent intervals. On April 15, India reported the highest-ever daily spike in Covid-19 cases with 2,00,739 new cases being reported. The total number of cases has gone up to 14,074,564, and India is placed in the second position globally after the US in terms of Covid-19 caseload. With 1,038 Covid-related deaths in India over the past 24 hours, India's Covid death count has now touched 1,73,123.

Also read: Flyers refusing to obey Covid norms set to face police action

Ten states account for 81% of the new cases. These are Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Rajasthan. Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka have been worst affected by the Covid surge, just as Maharashtra and Kerala were worst affected when the pandemic broke out last year. On April 15, Maharashtra reported the highest daily new cases at 58,952. The state had recorded the highest single-day rise with 63,294 cases on April 12. 

In view of this grim situation, several states have imposed strict restrictions on domestic and international flyers. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and MoCA have also provided for tough punishments for Covid safety norm violations by passengers. 

National carrier Air India, which has been the linchpin of India's mega Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) for repatriating people stranded in various parts of the world, has started 100% pre-flight testing for crew operating non-stop flights to the US, the UK, Canada and Australia, The Times of India reported. Post-flight testing was started for the crew on flights from the UK and the rest of Europe and the UAE. 

Since domestic flights were restarted in May last year, Air India has been providing its pilots with a hotel stay with meals to ensure that they do not need to leave their hotel rooms. In March this year, the airline decided to provide bed and breakfast service for its crew as the Covid-19 cases started to rise again.

(Cover image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Abhinav619)