India’s airports may not be ready for a post-covid revival in air travel

About to take off.
About to take off.
Image: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas/File Photo
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Indians are increasingly returning to air travel after being grounded by the covid-19 pandemic for months, but the country’s airports are now a matter of concern.

At many of the facilities, the numbers still are a third of what they used to be till March 2020. Nevertheless, rising vaccination coverage and a corresponding fall in infections have boosted flyers’ confidence. Travel restrictions have, meanwhile, been progressively eased.

On Oct. 3, Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, India’s largest, received the highest number of flyers on a single day since the catastrophic second wave blighted the country in April this year.

Mumbai and Hyderabad, too, are handling rising passenger movement.

On Oct. 17, the domestic airport in India’s financial capital saw over 90,000 flyers, the highest movement since March 23, 2020, leading to much chaos at the facility.

The situation will evolve dramatically once international commercial flights are reopened in the country.

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Social distancing at Indian airports

India’s airports, which have handled much heavier passenger traffic in the past, are already failing to follow pandemic protocol, including social distancing.

Many passengers have taken to social media to express frustration over such inefficiency, especially as fear of a third wave looms.

Airports’ claims

Quartz reached out to officials at some busy airports and they expressed confidence in handling the emerging situation. They cited various initiatives.

  • Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi: The facility has an artificial intelligence (AI)-based passenger tracking system at key spots like entry gates, check-in counters, security-check and security-hold. “The system also sends alerts…if there’s any breach of social distancing norms,” said a spokesperson for the GMR Group, which owns the airport. “Terminal operation staff have been deployed at various places to encourage passengers to abide by covid appropriate behaviour.” This was the first Indian airport to introduce an on-site RT-PCR laboratory. “In addition, a drive-in test centre is available in the multi-level car parking at T3 for flights departing to Canada,” the spokesperson said.
  • Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, Mumbai: One of the world’s busiest single crossover runway airports, it has deployed additional staff at the security-handling area and installed more x-ray machines. The airport has requested airlines to allow the check-in of cabin baggage. A spokesperson said passengers will be allowed to enter the terminal only four hours before departure and visitors’ entries have also been restricted, maintaining a steady flow from entry to boarding.
  • Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, Hyderabad: Twenty special police officers have been appointed to impose penalties on passengers, visitors, and staff breaching the covid-19 safety guidelines. The penalty for not wearing a mask, for instance, could be as high as 1,000 rupees ($13.35). “The airport has deployed self-check-in kiosks, as per social-distancing norms across the forecourt area and at check-in halls for a contact-less boarding experience,” said a spokesperson for GMR Group, which also looks after this facility. The airport has also implemented a unique queue management system. “An advanced camera-based video analytics solution constantly monitors various key parameters such as peak passenger waiting time and helps in monitoring social distance,” said the spokesperson.

In these uncertain times, there may not be anything like “too much” caution.