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Indian aviation thought 2019 was bad, it didn’t see coronavirus coming

REUTERS/Carlos Jasso
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  • Niharika Sharma
By Niharika Sharma

Aviation and social media reporter

The global Covid-19 outbreak has clipped the wings of India’s aviation sector.

With the spread of the novel coronavirus to 83 countries, across six continents, Indians have become sceptical about travelling abroad. The government, too, has warned against it.

“Indians are wary of making fresh bookings to (coronavirus) affected locations and airfares to these destinations have dropped 20-30%,” Sabina Chopra, co-founder & COO of travel portal Yatra.com, told Quartz. “We have received cancellation queries from around 35% travellers who had planned foreign trips.”

Data from travel firm ixigo also show dipping airfares.

This new maelstrom comes at a time when the industry was trying to leave behind a particularly messy 2019.

Given the situation, Indian airlines have now sought a relief package from the centre. They want a waiver of landing and parking charges and payments to oil marketing firms, the Business Standard reported on March 5.

Cloudy skies

For starters, there are the travel advisories issued by governments of Covid-19-hit countries.

Domestic carrier Vistara, a joint venture between Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines, has made “temporary” adjustments to select services from, and to, Bangkok and Singapore due to weak demand, said a spokesperson. “As of now, 20 flights between Delhi and Bangkok, 26 flights between Mumbai and Singapore and eight flights between Delhi and Singapore will be cancelled in March 2020.”

Low-budget carrier GoAir is dealing with a similar situation.

“Post an advisory issued by the Saudi government on not allowing non-Saudi residents to enter its territory, GoAir has temporarily suspended operations to Dammam. GoAir has also temporarily suspended certain flights to Bangkok and Phuket sector,” a GoAir spokesperson said.

National carrier Air India has cancelled its flights to Shanghai and Hong Kong till June 30. It has reduced frequency on the Delhi-Singapore route from seven to five days now; that to Tokyo is down from five to four per week. For Milan, Seoul, and Rome, it was cut to two per week from three or four earlier. Air India plans to operate a smaller Airbus A320 to Saudi Arabia instead of the Boeing 747 and Boeing 777 due to suspension of the annual Haj pilgrimage, the Business Standard reported on March 4.

Turbulent times ahead

Vistara CEO Leslie Thng believes the overall impact of Covid-19 on Indian aviation will be short term, though experts disagree.
Mumbai-based credit agency ICRA has maintained its negative outlook on the industry.

“The Indian government advisory issued on Feb. 26, asking citizens to refrain from non-essential travel to Singapore, Republic of Korea, Iran, and Italy can seriously affect the sector,” the agency said in a recent note. “Passengers on impacted countries (China, Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand), account for 20.2%-24.7% of the total international passengers flying from and to India. They may cancel their travel plans.”

This trend will likely continue into the peak period in April.

“Summer is the peak travel period in India but due to the prevailing situation, there are many destinations, which are expected to face a drop. Southeast Asia and Italy are among the most preferred destinations for Indians, and can witness a drop of about 20%-25% in terms of future bookings,” said Chopra of online travel portal Yatra.com.

On Feb. 20, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated a 13% annual fall in passenger demand for carriers in the Asia-Pacific region.

Meanwhile, flyers are worried about other issues, too.

“Travellers are scared of being confined into aircraft space, cruises, being quarantined and more. Globally, the travel industry has come into a deficit of nearly $80 billion,” Jyoti Mayal, president of Travel Agent Association of India, told India Today.

On March 4, the government issued an advisory that all incoming international passengers must declare their travel history to health and immigrations officials at India’s airports. Earlier, countries on the watch list of the Indian government were only China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, Singapore and Taiwan.

Refunds

Despite assurances of cancellation fee not being charged, flyers face issues.

Vistara had on Feb. 26 said that customers of any cancelled flight can opt for a full refund or change their travel dates free of charge.

GoAir has provided such options for flights to and from Bangkok and Phuket.

Yesterday (March 4), Gurugram-based travel portal ixigo launched a “no-questions asked” full-refund scheme for select destinations affected by coronavirus: China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Spain, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan. This is for travel dates up to March 31, it said in a press release.

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