Flight Plan

Time to fly again around the world with kit and kin?

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on June 09, 2020

Analysts favour India too resuming international flights but in a phased manner, beginning with travel-safe zones in Asia.

Even though the threat posed by the coronavirus epidemic is yet to recede completely, the world is opening up again and airlines are chalking out plans to resume international flights.

Earlier this month, Lufthansa announced that it will scale up its global operations from September. Dubai-headquartered Emirates has restarted limited international flights.

China has resumed international flights and now there are indications that India will also soon join these airlines and start international operations.

Here, the government’s decision to ease visa restrictions for some categories of foreigners, and allowing green-card holders or OCIs and Indian nationals holding a visa with a minimum residual validity of three months for the country they want to go back to, among others, is being viewed as a positive development on the road to opening up international flying again.

Jagannarayan Padmanabhan, Director & Practice Leader – Transport & Logistics, CRISIL Infrastructure Advisory, says that these are indeed positive signs for opening up international routes. However, he adds that this can be done after there is stabilisation of services in the domestic sector. India allowed limited domestic operations to start on May 25, after two months of a lockdown on domestic flying.

This is what others too are maintaining. According to Nripendra Singh, Industry Principal, Aerospace, Defence & Security Practice, Frost & Sullivan, international flying could start as early as the end of June. Once domestic flights resumed operations, there was little doubt that international flights wouldn't follow suit, he adds.

The reasoning for international flights starting makes sense. As analysts point out, India cannot remain isolated as pockets all over the world open up to global travel. Countries like Australia, New Zealand and South Korea have restarted international operations.

There is also unanimity that international operations in India will start in a step-by-step manner. Singh believes that a phased resumption will begin with travel-safe zones in Asia, which are easy markets to restart international operations considering the wide exposure to these markets of narrow-body aircraft, which are used by most of the low-cost carriers.

Jagannarayan agrees and points out that countries have started opening up for international travel in a calibrated manner, so when India opens up, it too will follow this route. “We expect international travel will be opened up, albeit partially, in Q2 of this year,” he adds.

Travel bridges

At a larger level, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has started talking about air bubbles or travel bridges. Alexandre de Juniac, Director-General, IATA, has called the discussion on air bubbles or travel bridges a positive development.

“We see this concept being discussed in various parts of the world, including the UK, with European countries and Austral-Asia. The idea is to establish connectivity with regions with similarly low rates of infection. As a temporary restart, we support this discussion if it opens borders to at least some traffic more quickly than would otherwise happen,” says Juniac.

Which countries India starts international operations to will depend on a number of factors. In a tweet on Sunday, Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Hardeep Puri, said, “Numerous citizens have been approaching us to restart international flights. Several factors need to be addressed. Many international destinations are not allowing incoming passenger traffic except their own citizens or diplomats.”

Others add the situation prevailing domestically to the factors that need to be considered before allowing international flights to resume. Factors like demand, country preparedness and quarantine rules are also being cited. At the moment, inter-State road transport is an issue in India as are the different lockdown measures in place in different States. Says Jagannarayan, “The important point to consider would be that there should be smooth travel for inbound passengers and uniform quarantine (if any) norms across all locations.” Another word of caution is that no one knows when the virus is going to peak in India or how large its spread is going to be. These two factors will determine which States or cities are likely to be allowed to operate and receive international flights.

Cargo, the bright spot

On a more optimistic note, the restarting of international travel will be a boon for Indian carriers for more reasons than one. During a recent conference call with analysts, Ronojoy Dutta, Chief Executive Officer, IndiGo, said the airline’s cargo flight operations, including to international destinations, had been the bright spot during the lockdown that India had imposed on travel.

“Cargo expanded faster than we had anticipated. During the shutdown, cargo was one of the bright spots. We are doing flights into China, the Middle East and other countries. When we come back to international flights, should we not do some full cargo flights to international destinations as well, because there are some channels we have discovered that are really strong niche markets,” he adds.

As the Covid-19 crisis has changed the aviation dynamics of the country, opening international flying could also be an opportunity for Indian carriers to benefit more in the short term.

For example, Indian carriers have not had the luxury of peak-hour slots when it comes to flights to the Middle East. Some analysts maintain that now would be the perfect time to reconsider slot allocations as India is in a better bargaining position.

With the tourism industry facing a downturn due to the pandemic and the Middle East shifting from an oil-based economy to a tourism-based economy, these countries might be forced to compromise instead of taking a bigger economic risk.

Published on June 09, 2020

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