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Analysis

Updated on: Wednesday, January 12, 2022, 08:33 AM IST

As Omicron rears its head, aviation buckles, writes Ajay Awtaney

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After ending 2021 on a high, with over 3.85 lakh domestic travellers going through the boarding gates on a single day on December 24 and 26, 2021, for Indian aviation players, 2022 had a not-so-great start in store. Demand has quickly dropped off the cliff, with the ministry of civil aviation reporting that only 2.4 lakh domestic passengers flew on January 9, 2022. That is a 38 per cent drop in the number of passengers flying around the country in just two weeks, in what has traditionally been a strong season for travel in India.

Not just that, the number of flights in operation have also reduced. While on December 24, 2021, 2,825 flights were operated, this number further reduced to 2,366 on January 8, 2022 -- a 17 per cent drop. Travel agents and airline employees on the ground state that this drop has been partly because of weather-related events, such as the recent snow in Srinagar, but a lot is also due to consolidation of flights as well, where loads have begun to drop.

Resurgence of the virus

While some of this demand destruction could be attributed to a return to work after the end-of-the-year holidays, there is clearly one major reason more than anything else, the resurgence of coronavirus in the form of a new variant: Omicron. The resurgence of the virus has caused demand to drop because of multiple reasons.

Many Indian states are now reinstating requirements to present an RT-PCR test for arrivals. The requirement to test itself becomes a deterrent for some people. For many others, it is difficult as they are now unable to present a test report within 48-72 hours of departure as testing capacity is running full again and it is hard to get a report in 8-12 hours, like it was earlier. Additionally, people might discover during their test that they are positive and carrying the virus, which prohibits them from travel, as they then have to enter isolation.

Secondly, it seems that airlines are also going through a rough patch, with employees across the board (cabin and cockpit crew, ground services, etc.) having to isolate on testing positive. Crew rosters are changing frequently now, something that was not the case even till December 2021. It indicates an attempt to operate as much of the schedule as possible with as many people who can legally fly at a point in time.

Various states also have their own approach to control the virus. For instance, West Bengal has asked airlines to stop operating non-stop flights into Kolkata, Durgapur and Bagdogra airports from Delhi and Mumbai except for three days a week.

Reduction in flight operations

Taking cognisance of the road ahead, IndiGo has announced that they will reduce their flight operations by up to 20 per cent during the next three months, and wherever possible, will cancel flights at least 72 hours in advance to make sure the customers’ plans don’t go for a toss. Such an announcement not only allows them to be prepared for cancellations in case of flight combinations, but also when they are unable to find enough crew to operate a flight.

Other airlines have not made such formal announcements yet, but cancellations are happening on a daily basis, with airlines clubbing flights on the back of low loads.

So what do you do as a customer, if you find yourself in this situation? Various airlines have taken a different view on this subject for now. IndiGo will allow you to change your flights at least 72 hours prior to departure, for all flights booked till January 31 and travel till March 31, 2022.

Vistara has issued a circular to its trade partners, stating that all tickets issued and with a travel date till March 31, 2022, will be offered a complimentary change, and travel needs to be completed till June 30, 2022. Go First and SpiceJet are also offering free changes, however, only for tickets booked under their free-change scheme, which started late December 2021 and is valid for ticket issuances till January 31, 2022. However, in this case, they will want you to pay for any fare difference applicable, and change your ticket three days prior to departure (SpiceJet’s offer is of 48-hour duration.)

If you do find your flight cancelled because of the airlines’ inability to operate the flight, the airline is then responsible for accommodating you on another flight or offering a full refund. IndiGo has a microsite called Plan B on their website, which can help you with changes and refunds. SpiceJet has a similar self-assistance site, but for other airlines, you will usually have to call them or get them to contact you, to ensure you have a new ticket for travel.

The bottom-line is, with the return of another bout of Covid-19, travel plans are being impacted again for customers due to a reduction in passenger numbers and flights. So, if you choose to fly, please monitor your email and phone for any schedule changes, and if for whatever reason, you’d like to stay home, some airlines will waive change fees.

(Ajay Awtaney writes about Indian Aviation on livefromalounge.com and tweets from @LiveFromALounge)

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Published on: Wednesday, January 12, 2022, 08:33 AM IST
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