Impact of COVID-19 on air passenger traffic

by Yash Shah

Civil aviation industry in India is among the worst hit, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Initially the impact of the pandemic was felt only on international passenger traffic. International passengers handled grew by 0.2 per cent on a year-on-year basis in January 2020, compared to 5.7 per cent growth recorded in January 2019. As early as January 2020, government began screening of passengers who arrived from China or Hong Kong at seven major airports across the country. There was no disruption in domestic passenger traffic during the month.

Domestic passengers handled at airports remained unscathed and grew by 9.8 per cent in February 2020. Growth in domestic passenger traffic was at a three month high during the month. In the month of February 2020, international passengers handled declined by 3.4 per cent. This was the steepest decline in international passenger traffic since April 2002. From mid February, the bureau of immigration had issued advisories on restrictions of travel to India from COVID-19 affected countries.

By March 6, 2020, government of India began screening all international passengers arriving at 30 different airports around the country. From March 22, 2020, all international scheduled commercial flights were not allowed to land on Indian soil. Since February 2017, international passenger traffic at airports has been above 5 million passengers every month. During March 2020, international passenger traffic declined by 56.2 per cent to 2.6 million passengers.

With the increase in panic and intensity of the spread of coronavirus, Centre announced a nationwide lockdown from March 24, 2020. From March 24, 2020, there was a complete shutdown of operations for all domestic scheduled commercial flights. Since October 2017, domestic passenger traffic at airports has been above 20 million passengers every month. During March 2020, domestic passenger traffic declined by 32.9 per cent to 15 million passengers.

During the month of April 2020, domestic passenger traffic contracted by 100 per cent and international passenger traffic declined by 99.1 per cent.

On May 7, 2020, government of India launched Vande Bharat mission to repatriate people to and from India. Vande Bharat mission has operated under two phases across May. As on May 31, 2020, 274 inbound flights were operated which carried 50,989 passengers and 276 outbound flights carrying 13,298 passengers were repatriated under the phase 1 and phase 2 of the Vande Bharat mission. Not only India, other countries have also made arrangements for bringing their nationals back to their home countries. As per reports, 15,000 British nationals have returned to UK since April 8, 2020. Not only UK, USA, South African countries, South Asian countries as well as South American countries have started repatriating their citizens from India. 70 flights will operate to evacuate Indians stranded in USA and Canada as part of phase 3 of the Vande Bharat mission between June 11 and June 30.

Other than repatriation missions, international commercial flights remained non-operational throughout April and May 2020 and are expected to remain non-operational throughout June 2020, as well. As of now, the government has not announced any date of resumption of international flights. As per reports, Hardeep Singh Puri, Civil Aviation Minister, said that India would try to restart international passenger flights before August or September 2020. International passenger traffic is thus expected to decline for at least the first half of the current financial year.

On the domestic front, scheduled commercial flights remained completely non-operational throughout April 2020 and most of May 2020. From May 25, 2020, domestic airlines were allowed to resume operations in a staggered manner. As per reports, Indian airports handled around 3,000 daily domestic flights during the pre-lockdown period. On May 25, 428 domestic flights were operated in India. Daily aircraft count rose to 692 flights on June 1, 2020. Around 30,000 domestic passengers are handled on a daily basis since May 25. Airports in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana and Tamil Nadu have been allowed to handle only a restricted number of daily flights to avoid a huge influx of flyers. In its advisory, Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), has advised to keep middle seats vacant in domestic airlines, to the extent possible. Domestic passenger traffic is thus expected to remain subdued throughout June 2020. With a gradual easing of lockdown restrictions and resumption of operations, domestic passenger traffic is expected to increase at a slow pace during the year.