India will reopen air travel on 383 routes across the country after a two-month gap, the government announced on Thursday, but allowed one-third of the operations beginning May 25 and set limits on fares that airlines can charge in the initial phase of this critical unlocking of swift long-distance travel.
Civil aviation minister Hardeep Puri said the government has identified seven bands based on flight durations, while announcing a set of norms for airlines and guidelines for passengers that outline how air travel is set to change in India in the aftermath of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak.
The fares — consistent for each band — will be capped till at least August 24.
“[Because of the lockdown] we have been able to escape the situation other countries have found themselves in. [But] it is equally important that at some stage you will have to open up. Two months is a very long time…you have to balance between lives and livelihood; it is time to now open up,” Puri said at a press conference in New Delhi, a day after announcing the resumption of domestic flights.
According to data by Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), flights in the first phase will operate on all routes, taking off from a total of 35 origin cities and landing in 39 destination airports.
“The central government hereby directs that domestic civil flight operations are permitted from 25 May, 2020 to a limited extent… For operations from Metro to Metro cities, One-Third capacity of the approved Summer Schedule…,” the civil aviation ministry said in an order on Thursday.
The metro cities were identified as Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata. The rule will be applicable for metro to non-metro operations as well.
Though there are several guidelines for social distancing in airports and at embarkation and disembarkation points, the middle seat will not be kept vacant in the aircraft.
Lancelot Pinto, an epidemiologist at Mumbai’s Hinduja Hospital, said social distancing should be a priority. “Even though the government is saying they will scan each passengers, many of the travellers will not show any symptoms as almost 80% people (Covid-19 patients) are asymptomatic.”
Puri, however, said it was not possible to keep the middle seat vacant. “This is not an option being followed by any other country as well. We will keep our fingers crossed,” he said.
The seven bands identified by the government are: flights with duration of less than 40 minutes (Sector A), those with journey time of 40-60 minutes (Sector B), 60-90 minutes (Sector C), 90-120 minutes (Sector D), 120-150 minutes (Sector E), 150-180 minutes (Sector F) and 180-210 minutes (Sector G).
A Delhi-Mumbai air travel takes around two hours, putting it in the category of Sector D.
“Earlier, air carriers could put their range (minimum to maximum) on their websites…We want air travel to become affordable. We have set a minimum fare and a maximum fare. For Delhi to Mumbai, the minimum fare will be Rs 3,500 and maximum Rs 10,000,” Puri said at the media briefing.
The government said 40% of the tickets in all bands will be sold at a price less than the mid-point (of the lower and upper limits). In case of a Delhi-Mumbai journey, these tickets will be priced at around Rs 6,700.
The move to set fare limits will ensure there is no overcharging by airlines in view of an expected rush of passengers and heightened demand for tickets, Puri said. At the same time, the move to set lower limits is expected to protect carriers from extremely low fares set by competitors.
Domestic flights with less than 40-minute duration, like the ones from Delhi to Chandigarh, will have lower and upper limits of Rs 2,000 and Rs 6,000, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) announced later in the day. For flights with duration between 40 and 60 minutes, such as Delhi to Lucknow, the lower and upper fare limits are Rs 2,500 and Rs 7,500.
In the next band (60-90 minutes for journeys like the ones between Bengaluru and Mumbai), the lower fare limit is Rs 3,000 and the upper limit is Rs 9,000, the aviation regulator said. Flights between 120 and 150 minutes, including those on major routes such as Delhi-Bengaluru, will have lower and upper limits of Rs 4,500 and Rs 13,000.
Those with duration between 150 and 180 minutes (such as Delhi to Imphal), the lower and upper limits are set at Rs 5,500 and Rs 15,700. And finally, for flights with duration between 180 and 210 minutes — like the ones on Delhi-Coimbatore route — the range will be Rs 6,500 and Rs 18,600.
Vistara welcomed the moved to resume domestic flights, which were grounded on March 25, the day restrictions were first imposed in the country.
“Aviation is a growth engine for the economy and resumption of air travel will give great impetus to the government’s overall efforts in helping the country eventually return to normalcy,” Vistara CEO Leslie Thng said.
Global airlines’ body International Air Transport Association (IATA), a grouping of 290 airlines, said the decision to regulate airfares is a “step back”. Private carriers such as Air India, Vistara, IndiGo and SpiceJet are its members.
“Airlines need to have the freedom to make their commercial decisions, including the pricing of airfares. Hence, we recognise and hope that this is a one-time measure as a result of Covid-19 and will be discontinued on August 24,” IATA assistant director (corporate communications – Asia Pacific) Albert Tjoeng told news agency PTI.
Ravi Kini, managing partner at law firm MV Kini & Co, said: “Fares are published by airlines in the regular course. The range normally published is very wide for allowing flexibility for the airlines to respond to the market demand in free market situation. In the current situation, free market play has been curbed due to Covid-19…This is a good move by the government to balance the consumer interests with airline profitability.”
(With agency inputs)