Coronavirus lockdown: Chartered passenger flights resume in low number

Coronavirus lockdown: Chartered passenger flights resume in low number

Between March 25 and May 24, Indian aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) did not allow any domestic passenger flights (scheduled or non-scheduled) due to the coronavirus-triggered lockdown

Fear of contracting coronavirus and various mandatory quarantine protocol of states have kept the number of domestic chartered passenger flights low during the first week of their operations in India, aviation sector executives said. Some of these domestic chartered passenger flights have been in news recently for taking migrant workers home.

India resumed its domestic "scheduled" passenger flights, for which an airline can sell the tickets publicly, on May 25 after a gap of two months due to the coronavirus-triggered lockdown. Domestic "non-scheduled" passenger flights, also called chartered passenger flights, also started operating from Monday.

Aviation sector executives told PTI that India's top two airports -- Delhi and Mumbai -- handled just 2-3 chartered passenger flights per day each between May 25 and May 30. During the pre-lockdown period, the Delhi airport handled over 30 chartered flights per day while the Mumbai airport handled around 50 chartered flights per day, they added.

Between March 25 and May 24, Indian aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) did not allow any domestic passenger flights (scheduled or non-scheduled) due to the coronavirus-triggered lockdown. However, chartered ambulance flight services were permitted to operate as usual.

"Most of the chartered flights that have operated from Delhi since Monday went and came back the same day as the crew members wanted to avoid the destination state's mandatory quarantine. These strict quarantine rules are also the reason for which flyers are avoiding booking these flights," the executives said.

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Almost all states in the country have issued protocols under which every flyer arriving there has to undergo a 14-day mandatory quarantine. While some have mandated institutional quarantine, others have made home quarantine compulsory. For example, Assam has made it clear that women travelling alone and senior citizens will be put in 14-day home quarantine while all other passengers have to undergo mandatory 14-day institutional quarantine.

"Chartered flights are generally booked by HNIs (high net worth individuals) on small aircraft that have at most 20 seats. The fear of contracting the virus is prevalent among them as the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the country. "That is why, just like any other traveller, their priority is to travel only when essential," the executives stated.

Meanwhile, as most of the HNIs may not be travelling themselves or with their families on chartered flights, there are a few who are booking such flights on big narrow-body aircraft to take migrant workers home amid the lockdown. Last week, AirAsia India operated two chartered flights for migrant workers - one was the Mumbai-Ranchi flight on Thursday booked by the alumni association of National Law School and the other was the Kochi-Bhubaneswar flight on Friday booked by actor Sonu Sood. The first one had 160 workers while the second one had 167 workers as passengers.

AirAsia India spokesperson told PTI, "Our clients (National Law School Alumni, Mr Sonu Sood) paid the amount for the charter flight to help transport the migrants and we agreed to support them in this noble initiative by bearing any remaining cost of operations." The executives said the cost of chartering a 180-seater A320 aircraft is around Rs 4-5 lakh per hour.

Not just domestically, chartered flights are going to start operating internationally as well, they said. The executives said Mangaluru International Airport will handle around seven flights, which are not part of the Vande Bharat Mission, during the next two weeks that will bring back stranded Indians from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. These seven flights have been booked by Gulf-based HNIs.

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Dubai-based Praveen Shetty, Chairman of Fortune Group of Hotels, has organised a chartered flight to bring back 177 Indians - his hotel staff and their family members - from Dubai to Mangaluru on June 1, the executives said. This flight will be the first of seven aforementioned flights to land at Mangaluru.

The government launched the Vande Bharat Mission on May 7 to bring back stranded Indians from abroad. Scheduled international passenger flights continue to remain suspended in India. Air India and its subsidiary Air India Express have been operating repatriation flights under the Vande Bharat Mission till now.

However, IndiGo on May 21 said it will be operating close to 100 repatriation flights from Gulf countries to Kerala under this mission. Other private carriers are expected to operate a total of 80 international repatriation flights under the mission. On Monday, the Civil Aviation Ministry issued guidelines for domestic chartered flight operations amid the coronavirus pandemic. Most of them were similar to the ones issued for domestic passenger flight services.

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In its guidelines, the ministry said if a passenger had manually booked a ticket for a chartered helicopter flight, the boarding pass will be issued at the helipad or heliport with minimum contact and after following all sanitisation protocols prescribed by local administration. Passengers should report at the airport, heliport or helipad at least 45 minutes before the departure time, the ministry said. "The charges of air travel (on chartered flights) to be as per mutually agreed terms between operators and the travellers," the ministry said.