Covid surge ruins recovery in Indian aviation, flight capacity pushed sharply down

The airlines had been cautious about running at full capacity even though the government seemed much more optimistic about the sector regaining pre-Covid health

Covid surge ruins recovery in Indian aviation, flight capacity pushed sharply down
A view of the Delhi airport. Image courtesy: Twitter/@DelhiAirport

Faced with a drastic downturn in demand in the wake of a frightening Covid resurgence and stricter travel restrictions in several states, the Indian aviation sector, which was on a steady recovery path even until very recently, has slowed down considerably. This has forced the government to walk backwards and revise flight capacity to 50% of pre-Covid levels. 

The new rule was made to come into effect from June 1 and would last till July 31, The Hindu reported. It was a sharp downward revision from the 80% flight capacity that was permitted even a few days ago. The government had in April kept flight capacity fixed at 80% till 11.59 pm on May 31. 

When the domestic sector was reopened on May 25 last year, after a two-month-long gap in the wake of a Covid-induced nationwide lockdown, airlines were allowed to operate at only 33% capacity. However, airlines were operating at only 25%, 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. Demand for air travel during the festive season 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. 

Also read -- Puri uses 'pawri' humour to caution about aviation recovery, lauds steady progress

The airlines were, however, 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 renewed Covid-19 crisis has come as a rude shock to the Indian aviation sector. India continued to set new global records of daily Covid-19 cases and started adding more than four lakh daily fresh cases in the early part of May. However, things have begun to change for the better and according to Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) data on June 2, India reported 1.32 lakh daily new cases in 24 hours, and active cases further declined below 20 lakh. On June 1, India had reported its lowest daily new cases in 54 days, with a figure of 1.27 lakh. Active cases on June 1 fell below 20 lakh after 43 days. The recovery rate on June 2 increased to 92.48%. Deaths, however, rose by 3,207 on June 2. 

Footfall at the Indian airports, however, continued to be weak. It stood at 1,40,031 on May 31, according to Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) data. There were only 1,684 aircraft movements. Contrast this with nearly five lakh footfall and a total flight movement of 4,663 on March 19, and the renewed recession in the aviation sector becomes clear. 

Airlines in India had earlier, in fact, approached the government to lower capacity to 50-60%, or the level that they operated at during the early part of reopening the domestic sector last year.

Flyers are anxious about contracting the virus in the second wave of attack, which is threatening to undo all the progress made over the past year, air travel demand is bound to fall. 

Also read -- Covid tsunami mars recovery: DGCA keeps capacity unchanged, extends fare caps

This sharply contrasts with the sentiment that was improving as India was showing signs of having found a semblance of control over the virus, especially with the advent of homemade vaccines. Indeed, leisure travel, considered completely avoidable in times of crises, was beginning to find a way back, especially during the festive season, and according to an IANS report, bookings on online travel platform Goibibo showed a 40% rise in daily check-ins for the Diwali season when compared to the average bookings in October. Airlines came up with lucrative deals to woo passengers, and also started adding new routes. 

However, mutant forms of the coronavirus found in many countries and an Indian version that is considered to be highly infectious have made people rethink their travel plans. The sudden shortage of vaccines has worsened matters. 

With India continuing to ban scheduled commercial international passenger flights, and several countries prohibiting flights from India in the wake of the Covid storm raging in India, the prospects of the international sector look dull too. India, in fact, has extended the ban on regular international air travel till June 30.