Flight Plan

Wanted: A booster dose for airlines

K Giriprakash | Updated on June 29, 2021

New ways: Vaccine passes are among the alternatives mooted to costly and time-consuming Covid-19 test for flyer   -  PTI

As vaccination numbers increase, airlines and the government look for the middle path to revive the beleagured travel sector

As airlines struggle to keep afloat during the pandemic, the government is trying hard to ring-fence its citizens from the virus.

As a first step towards meeting the government’s expectations halfway, airlines are rolling out incentives to passengers who have taken at least one dose of vaccination while some others have fully vaccinated crew to helm flights. At the same time, in anticipation of the traffic recovery forecast by aviation consultancy CAPA in the second half of this financial year, airlines want the mandatory RT-PCR test done away with for passengers who have received both shots of a Covid-19 vaccine.

There is much to look forward to for the domestic airline industry as Civil Aviation Ministry data shows that air passenger traffic has more than doubled in the last few weeks. The average number of daily fliers rose to over 1 lakh for the week ended June 19, compared with 49,000 for the week ending May 23.

“We feel that some level of relaxation can be offered to fully vaccinated travellers for ease of movement across domestic and international destinations,” said Vinod Kannan, chief commercial officer, Vistara Airlines.

He believes this can be done through a mandatory solution (travel/ health pass) that is standardised for both domestic and international flights, to facilitate seamless and hassle-free travel, especially for fliers connecting from a domestic route to international and vice versa.

With vaccines increasingly administered across the globe, vaccine passports (or travel/ health passes) are expected to become a key requirement for the global travel industry in the future.

But the government has been extremely cautious and put a cap on airline capacity as well as fares. Since June 1, the capacity in Indian skies has been capped at 50 per cent; it was 33 per cent in May before it was gradually increased to 80 per cent and, finally, reduced to 50 per cent.

There are reports of a rethink of the entire structure. Minister of Civil Aviation Hardeep Singh Puri is learnt to have initiated discussions with stakeholders to decide whether to do away with an RT-PCR test for passengers who are fully vaccinated.

An AirAsia India spokesperson said the vaccination drives will build confidence among those who wish to travel. He cited a recent ‘Travel Intent’ survey by the airline that showed more than 50 per cent of respondents were keen to travel, and their perception on air travel was far more positive now than in the past year.

It is quite obvious that the current situation calls for some serious thinking. CAPA believes that Indian carriers are expected to lose $4.1 billion in the current fiscal, on top of a similar loss in the previous year. “Many operators will struggle to recover from two consecutive years of massive losses,” CAPA’s India CEO Kapil Kaul said.

IndiGo has come out with innovative ways to encourage passengers to get both vaccination shots. It recently offered passengers who have received at least one vaccination dose a 10 per cent discount on the base fare, while Vistara and AirAsia India have started flights with fully vaccinated crews.

But that is not enough, say airlines, which want the government to lend a helping hand to revive the sector. Relaxed requirement for RT-PCR tests for fully vaccinated individuals will not only ease travel but also lighten the load on the healthcare infrastructure, an AAI spokesperson said. The RT-PCR tests for frequent travellers proves cost-intensive and a deterrent for last-minute or emergency travels, he said.

Kannan of Vistara pointed out that health authorities around the globe have repeatedly mentioned that vaccination provides protection against infection. Calling for a more convenient set of requirements, he however conceded they “will have to be guided by the respective health regulations”.

Binod Modi, Head of Strategy, Reliance Securities, agrees. “As select states have started allowing air travel without RT-PCR test, others may follow suit, especially for passengers who have been vaccinated,” he noted.

Perhaps this could be the middle ground for the airlines and the government to hammer out a viable structure that will put the sector back on the path of recovery and, at the same time, keep passengers safe.

Published on June 27, 2021

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