While airlines are not keen on leaving a seat vacant in between rows to ensure social distancing, they are readying alternative plans for starting post-covid flying operations once the lockdown is lifted. This includes health check-up prior to boarding for fever symptoms, minimising touchpoints of contact between customers and crew, reducing meal choices and withdrawing onboard reading material.

“We intend to minimise touchpoints of contact between our customers and crew by up to 80 per cent. On domestic flights, the service alterations include a reduction in meal choices and withdrawal of services such as onboard sales.

Water-pouring will be replaced with the distribution of 200-ml sealed water bottles on all flights. We will also discontinue reading material from seatback pockets on all aircraft,” said a Vistara spokesperson. As precautionary measures, most airlines are looking to clean all aircraft at the turnaround of every single flight,and deep cleaning every 24 hours.

Airline crew are expected to wear PPE at all times and customers will be requested to wear masks as well. Aircraft will also be equipped with surgical masks, gloves, sanitiser wipes, and contactless infrared thermometers, in case needed. Any passenger showing symptoms of Covid-19 will undergo a precautionary check-up with the Airport Medical Support Team.

Capt Shakti Lumba, former Vice-President, Flight Operations of IndiGo, said, “For starters, it will be good if each passenger is checked prior to boarding for flu or fever symptoms. If each passenger was to wear a mask and surgical gloves then the chances of infection would be reduced to about 1 per cent.”

Some international airlines like Delta have started blocked sale of middle seats on all flights. Delta is also blocking the sale of select aisle and window seats on additional aircraft. However, airline industry experts are quite clear that leaving the middle seat vacant to maintain social distancing norms is financially unviable.

IndiGo's Chief Commercial Officer, Willy Boulter, told BusinessLine that the distance between the three passengers in a row is very less anyway and leaving the seat vacant would not serve any purpose.

Lufthansa, which had initially started blocking middle seats, has rolled it back. “Due to the current low occupancy rate, seats will nevertheless be allocated as widely as possible throughout the cabin,” it said.

More tariffs, waiting time

Airlines are also planning streamlined boarding, special toilets, isolation seats, and heath interviews. Virgin Atlantic is planning to take health screening via questionnaires and verbal interviews before boarding.

“Our medical experts are regularly evaluating what additional measures we or our industry partners may need to implement in advance of welcoming our customers on board scheduled services again. A common international standard on required measures for air travel, including potential medical screening at airports by local health authorities in the start-up phase of travel, would ensure consistency and instill confidence for customers,” said a Virgin Atlantic spokesperson.

All this, however, could increase tariffs and waiting time at airports. The additional health check-up and interviews could take up more than an hour. “If we have to sell only a fraction of our capacity, it is likely that the cost per ticket would go up Once the lockdown lifts, we expect a surge in passenger traffic as many people would want to get from point A to B because they’re stuck in a different place from home and other such reasons. But what happens thereafter is not known. Eventually, market forces will decide what airfares are going to look like in the next few months,” said a Vistara spokesperson.

A possible increase in tariffs could be good for the aviation sector which has been the hardest hit due to the global lockdown. India’s aviation industry will crash-land this fiscal with a revenue loss of ₹24,000–25,000 crore, according to CRISIL. In its advisory, CRISIL stated that airlines will be the worst-affected, contributing over 70 per cent of the losses, or ₹17,000 crore, followed by airport operators with ₹5,000-5,500 crore, and airport retailers (including retail, food and beverages and duty-free) with ₹1,700-1,800 crore.