Opinion

On a wing, with a prayer

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on January 18, 2021

Airports and airlines shouldn’t overlook Covid safety

In what is being seen as a positive step by many, flying in India is returning to pre-Covid levels in terms of the number of flights being operated and the number of people flying since limited flying was allowed from May 25 after the lockdown was partially lifted.

But does this mean that Covid precautions can be overlooked, particularly when two new and supposedly more virulent strains have been found?

As anyone who has flown recently from Delhi or even smaller airports like Gaggal in Himachal Pradesh will know, there is virtually no social distancing. Forget the six-feet gap, people have been seen falling over each other to enter the Delhi airport, there is no social distancing at check-in counters, and clearing security is a nightmare. Yes, the check-in staff sit behind glass partitions and there is strict checking of identity cards, but there is no mention of the Aarogya Setu app.

Buses taking passengers to the aircraft are generally packed. While some airlines follow the right protocols in boarding and de-boarding passengers, others do not (boarding those who are sitting the farthest from the door first to avoid crowding in the aisles).

Not well-served

Airlines are also using their own discretion when it comes to serving meals. Low-cost carriers are giving the option of pre-booking meals and even ordering and paying for meals on board while some full-service carriers (like on the Gaggal-Delhi route) did not serve any meal. Worse, the crew did not even serve water and asked passengers to help themselves from the galley. Luckily, the flight was not full so there was no crowding in the aisles.

Of course, there is no denying that flyers are partly to be blamed for this. Not everyone wears a mask and those who do, do not cover their face properly. This is the case at airports and even on flights. Though there are no announcements at Delhi airport about maintaining social distancing or wearing masks, on the flights there are repeated announcements that flyers should wear their masks and face shields at all times, but few bother.

The one rule the airlines seem to be following is giving out small plastic packets containing a face shield, a mask and a sanitiser sachet. This could well be a branding exercise as the face shields have airlines’ name prominently on display.

But what does not help is that even the crew often do not wear face shields (and some not even disposable gloves).

Laxity in following rules

Much of the blame for this laxity in following standard operating procedures (SOPs) lies with the airports and the airlines, which need to ensure that social distancing and protection norms are followed properly. It is all very well for airports, like the one in Delhi, to say that the air in the airport is cleaned every few minutes. But what about social distancing or at least asking passengers to wear their masks properly?

Airlines, too, need to take extra care. It is understandable that they have not operated for two months and now want to cash in following the resumption of flights. But doing so at the risk of not stringently implementing the SOPs defeats the very purpose of promoting flying as a safe and secure way of travel. While nobody is trying to make the point that an aircraft filled with passengers is a super spreader of Covid, can one overlook the fact that there have been cases of passengers getting off flights having the virus?

Given the way the government is increasing the number of flights airlines can operate — at 80 per cent of the pre-Covid level, now — this becomes even more important. Till the SOPs are followed strictly, all those flying for work or pleasure are doing so on a wing and a prayer.

Published on January 18, 2021

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