As the COVID-19 cases increase again, the government is expected to make a decision on the capacity utilization of national airlines by the end of the week.

As the COVID-19 cases increase again, the government is expected to make a decision on the capacity utilization of national airlines by the end of the week.

Significantly, unlike during the first wave of the pandemic, the government is not imposing the limitations unilaterally. Domestic airlines, which have seen a substantial drop in passenger numbers as well as illness among staff members in the last fortnight, have petitioned the ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) to reinstate flight operations caps. Domestic carriers’ flight schedules are likely to be reduced in the near future, requiring passengers who have made prior reservations to alter their trip plans. According to various top government officials, the Union government is likely to announce directives curtailing flight operations and capacity utilization as early as this weekend.

As part of the new guidelines the government is working on, the Centre plans to introduce gradual capacity utilization caps, if the need arises. The first cap on capacity utilization will be introduced if the country reports more than 50,000 cases daily, a senior government official said. “If the daily COVID-19 cases cross 50,000, domestic capacity utilization will be capped at 85 percent,” the official said. In fact, industry insiders expect the government to cap domestic capacity at 80 percent from the present 100 percent by the end of the week due to rising COVID-19 cases. They added that in order to avoid monopolization of market share by larger airlines, the government is likely to reinstate the domestic capacity cap.

Significantly, the restrictions are not being imposed unilaterally by the government as was the case during the first wave of the pandemic. Rather, domestic airlines that have experienced a sharp fall in passenger numbers in the past fortnight as also illness among crew members have urged the ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) to bring back caps on flight operations. “The decision to reinstate a cap on domestic airline capacity utilization will be taken after the Union civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia meets the heads of airlines,” a senior government official. The meeting is likely to happen by the end of the week. MoCA and Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) have been consulting the ministry of health and family welfare and the National Disaster Management Authority on the COVID-19 situation to take a call on curtailing flights. MoCA and DGCA have not received any indication from them to reduce airline operations, sources said.

“Many airlines are already considering canceling flights as they are not able to fill adequate seats and want to reduce cash burn,” a senior airline official said. According to MoCA data, seat occupancy at various airlines was down to 55 percent to 70 percent. The average daily domestic passengers carried by Indian airlines was also down to around 270,000 daily passengers in the first week of January, compared with the average of 350,000 daily passengers carried in December. Another senior airline official said airlines in India are also facing crew scheduling and rostering problems as many of their cabin crew and pilots have also tested positive for COVID-19 following the outbreak of the Omicron variant of the virus in India. He added that asymptomatic crew members and pilots have been mandated to quarantine for 10 days by the DGCA and this is making it difficult for airlines to operate at 100 percent capacity.

ICRA’s vice-president and sector head Suprio Banerjee in a report this week also said that the emergence of the new coronavirus variant and the recent trend of rising infections, and some states already announcing certain curbs on domestic air travel are posing a serious threat to domestic passenger traffic recovery in the near term. Earlier this week, IndiGo, India’s largest domestic airline in terms of market share, had announced that it would withdraw 20 percent of its flights as the surge in COVID-19 cases had hit travel demand.

Senior executives from the industry had then also asked the government for financial help to keep running operations, reduce the capacity cap and finally strictly enforce the lower fare limit fixed by the government. The government has allowed domestic flights to fly with 100 percent capacity since October 18, 2021, in order to meet rising demand from passengers during the festival season in India.

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