There is a need for early action by the government to save this sector from permanent damage.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the aviation industry the hardest. India’s sudden lockdown in March 2020 was its nemesis. Suddenly, all passenger flights were banned from 23 March 2020. When they opened in May 2020, they were restrictions on seat capacity as well on ticket pricing. In any case, passenger fear of flying made things worse. On top of this, there was no concession of any sort given to the airline industry. Airlines’ profitability was always thin due to severe domestic competition. Many airlines had made more money flying abroad than within the country, but this also came to an end. The repatriation flights for stranded Indians abroad, called “Vande Bharat” flights, started by 23 May 2020, but with severe restrictions. This was followed by opening of domestic flights on 25 May 2020, with restrictions. Then started the “bubble arrangements” with some select countries, and these “arrangements” still continue. The second Covid wave has made all this erratic. Both domestic and international flights which also started on 23/25 May 2020, have had their share of uncertainty due to Covid flaring up in different parts of the country and states and foreign countries reimposing their restrictions/ conditions or outright stopping them for some time. The losses of the airlines, however, kept mounting. Unnecessary restrictions were put on domestic flights, with both price restrictions and seat occupancy denting profitability. According to CAPA, India’s airlines could lose US $3-4 billion in FY 2020-21and have a fleet surplus of 200-250 aircraft. This industry has a great impact on employment, both direct and indirect of the skilled and unskilled varieties. There is a need for early action by the government to save this sector from permanent damage.
It is said that every crisis is also an opportunity. While the airlines were already fairly deep into digital technology for their operations more than other sectors of the economy, Covid was a “boost”.
For passengers, ticketing and travel became a contactless experience to a much greater extent–booking a ticket to downloading the boarding pass and baggage tag became the norm. While online ticket purchases were already very popular, passengers’ seamless experience at the airport vastly improved, bringing back the passenger confidence. The boarding card, which was an unnecessary requirement for the security staff, not followed anywhere in the world, was finally given up. The use of social media by the passengers and airlines also went up. Messages sent by airlines regarding your flight became routine. Flight delays and cancellations were on your smartphone. If a state required a RT-PCR test to enter, you were informed by SMS. All these were done with improved software. Some airlines improved their inflight entertainment. Order of food online became possible to be served on flight. At the same time, airlines removed all hard magazines and replaced them with soft copies.
In the case of SpiceJet, a major exercise was undertaken with their in-house IT team to ensure that passenger experience was the best. On arrival, each passenger would receive an SMS seeking a minute of their time for a passenger travel survey. All reactions of the passengers were automatically processed by the software produced in-house and sent to the officer concerned. In case of complaint/shortcoming, an answer would be sent to the passenger within 24 hours and corrective action taken. In case of compliment, the staff would be rewarded. This improved staff performance and incentive leads to increased productivity. This has also resulted in SpiceTech, their IT arm, getting contracts for software development from foreign airlines.
As a result of all these factors, the workload at the check-in counter at the airport became negligible. As most passengers came with their own print-out of the boarding pass and baggage tags, the check-in time got reduced. The only contact that remained was if a passenger had excess baggage and the passenger had to make a payment.
Another great change that took place amid Covid times was the sudden increase in cargo requirement. Domestic cargo was a marginal business for airlines. But with Covid, the demand for cargo went up suddenly. India’s airlines did not have freighter aircraft; so some airlines started using their passenger aircraft for cargo delivery.
Besides the belly of the aircraft, they wanted to use the passenger seats to carry cargo. It was here permission of the government and the airline manufacturer was needed, but luckily both cooperated and this was allowed. This practice of passenger aircraft to carry cargo only or partially on the seats has been a great breakthrough in permissions.
This has set a precedent for the airlines, who sometimes have to park their passenger aircraft during the lean season, and they will use this option as and when required in the future.
The concept of cargo by air got a major fillip during this period. A company like Amazon which would send small amounts by air started pre booking full aircraft for their cargo. In fact, cargo became the mainstay and survival for India’s airlines during this period.
One outcome of this Covid period is that airlines learnt to survive (so far at least). Reducing staff and with more digitalisation of their activities resulted in their becoming leaner and more efficient. In fact, presently, in a recent tender/RFP issued by the AAI for selection of service provider for provision of passenger processing system (CUPPS, CUSS and BRS) at AAI managed airports, the Federation of Indian Airlines has protested that the present system of fixing a cost to airline for every departing passenger should give way to actual use of CUPPS, CUSS and BRS. This is so because the use of these passenger check-in kiosks has come down very substantially at the airports as most passengers are not using these terminals anymore.
However, ironically, after having achieved such a great success at passenger convenience through digitisation, this request has been rejected by the Airports Authority of India.
Dr Sanat Kaul is Chairman of International Foundation for Aviation, Aerospace and Drones. He was former Civil Aviation Secretary, GOI, and can be contacted at: