Passenger fear was among key challenges during repatriation operations: Air India SATS head

K Giriprakash Bengaluru | Updated on May 26, 2020

Gateway services and cargo operations company Air India SATS Airport Services has been involved in the repatriation of Indian citizens and providing logistics support to international airlines. In an interaction with BusinessLine, AISATS CEO Ramanathan Rajamani shared insights on the ‘ground zero’ experience and the role of ground handling operations during Covid-19. Excerpts:

What kind of challenges did Air India SATS face during the repatriation of passengers?

During the first half of the lockdown period, we were able to get 22,000 passengers across 125 destinations to return to their homeland. This number includes Indian nationals as well. We have also supported 44 international airlines so far. For cargo operations, we have managed to handle over 4,000 metric tonnes including medical supplies.

One of the main challenges was to tackle the fear factor. Our priority was to ensure that the frontline workforce was well equipped with safety gears, masks, gloves etc. The next was the handling of the passengers as they do tend to be anxious, very worried about the environment. Because of the partial lockdown, the facilities available were few and that was a bit of a handicap. Only a few gates are open during the repatriation flights. We had to closely monitor the movement of passengers, right from the time they entered the terminal and all the way to the door of the aircraft. We also had to ensure that the passengers were provided with food, and those who were found to have Covid symptoms were taken care of.

How long will the repatriation of citizens continue?

It is still on and will continue this entire month. As per the Vande Bharat Mission, India has been operating Air India aircraft across countries to bring back Indians. This month we are all fully packed. I think this operation will continue while the lockdown is still in place. We have been deploying different types of aircraft depending on whether it is a short-haul or a long-haul flight. We have also been handling the charter flights that carry medical emergency kits and have been supporting Indian Air Force flights.

There have been issues with a few passengers and parents of students who were concerned about the safety aspect of bringing them back to India...

Usually, in a scenario like this, there are various agencies involved in planning and execution. It is not just one agency which carries out all the operations. For example, the ground handling agency ensures that the movement of passengers between the terminal gate to the aircraft is carried out smoothly. The airport authority helps ensure that the passengers are confined to a certain location so that we don’t have people moving around in the airport. If anyone shows symptoms of high fever and cough, then that person has to be immediately isolated.

Then there are the embassy staff who are brought in to ensure that all the nationals are kept in a safe place and are monitored regularly. Each and every passenger’s movement is monitored, right from the time they land until they reach home.

We do agree there will be some hiccups but we are all the time trying to ensure that these get ironed out in every subsequent flight. We had issues with handling the cargo as we could not move around people when the first lockout was imposed. Our officials could not reach the terminal as the local authorities were restricting their movement. We got around the problem after we got the necessary permissions.

How much did it cost AISATS to carry out the repatriation programme?

I am not sure in terms of monetised value but, as of now, we have been handling about 400 flights including all the charters and cargo, while only 5 per cent of our total workforce of 11,000 is being utilised. Pre-Covid, we were handling some 12,000 flights, 12,000 tonnes of cargo and about 3 million passengers in a month.

What are the learnings from this operation? Will there be any long-term changes for all the stakeholders?

The standard operating procedures that are being put in place is a work in progress. We have given our inputs and so has IATA at the international level. Industry experts say that the recovery for the sector will take another 3-4 years. Apart from the fact that only one check-in baggage will be allowed, a few other services like ground handling, check-in counters and check-in agents will still need to be deployed.

What will eventually happen is that most of the operations will get automated and there will be less human intervention. But I see an opportunity here. Pre-Covid, we hardly had the time to train and upskill people, which we can do now. We want our workforce to be more tech-savvy; our manual processes are slowly getting converted to digital format.

I assume AI will play a far more crucial role than before as social distancing is now a norm. With AI, we will be able to immediately detect where crowding is taking place. Self-checks will be more prevalent. Facial recognition will become a norm to smoothen the process of entry into the airport and the aircraft. There will be fewer human touchpoints, and congestion at the airports will be reduced considerably.

I believe it is a work in progress. As we begin to open up slowly, this process will continue to evolve as more and more airlines, ground handlers and airport operators give feedback. I am sure IATA will also reinforce with their version of operating procedures for the airport and the stakeholders.

Published on May 26, 2020

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