Last-minute cancellations cause chaos as air travel resumes

May 25, 2020

NEW DELHI: Domestic air travel had a bumpy take-off on its comeback on Monday after two months of being grounded, thanks to an already sanitised first-day schedule being almost halved at short notice to leave hundreds of stranded flyers marooned again in a mess of last-minute coordination between the civilian aviation ministry and states.
Day One saw 532 flights operate, ferrying 39,231 passengers to various destinations. While many of these flights had rows of empty seats, thousands of flyers were left agonising over roughly the same number of flight cancellations.

The schedule for Monday was finalised after talks between the aviation ministry and some states ended late Sunday night with the decision that some airports like Kolkata, Bagdogra, Vijaywada and Vishakhpatnam will open only later this week while others like Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad would have a strict cap on the number of flights,” a senior official of a private airline said.
He said the airline started informing passengers about cancellations or changes in flight timings only around midnight on Sunday. “There was utter confusion till just hours before flights were to recommence. Passengers who were to travel on Monday’s cancelled flights blamed us, not realising that it was not our fault that they had to suffer.”

The night curfew from 7pm to 7am added to the chaos, with some passengers turning up at the airports on Sunday night itself. “Some Kolkata-bound passengers arrived at Delhi airport’s Terminal-3 on Sunday night. Around 8pm, when it became known that Kolkata airport would open for scheduled flights only from Thursday (May 28), we informed them that their flight had been cancelled,” another airline official said.
State-specific quarantine protocols, too, seemed to leave flyers wary and confused. Uttarakhand, which has made 10 days of paid quarantine in various categories of hotels mandatory for all flyers, reported only three arriving passengers on a morning flight from Delhi.
An IndiGo A-320 flight from Bengaluru to Goa had just 30 passengers. In Goa, a flyer can go home directly only if the person is carrying a Covid-negative certificate issued by an ICMR-recognised lab not more than 48 hours earlier. Everyone else has to pay Rs 2,000 for a test and be quarantined at home or opt for 14 days of institutional quarantine.

Times View

With each state following its own protocol for air travellers (TOIcarried a detailed graphic in yesterday’s edition), there are almost as many different protocols as there are states. Some of them seem prima facie to be unworkable, like the demand for Covid negative certificates at a time when individuals can’t just choose to get tested. In any case, to expect each person wanting to take a flight to be tracking what protocols apply to him or her in the state from which the flight originates and the one in which it lands is unrealistic. While the general principle of allowing states greater leeway in deciding what measures they take to protect their citizens cannot be faulted, there are situations in which it can become impractical. This is one such. It would be best if there were asingle set of rules applicable for all air travel across the country. In devising those rules, what needs to be kept in mind is that there are, at the moment, broadly two kinds of people wanting to take flights — those who were stuck in the wrong city because of the lockdown and want to get back home, and those who need to travel for work or business. The two categories can’t be treated similarly. Those returning home may not mind home quarantine for a week or two (at the most), but clearly a business traveller can’t afford it. Some states have made this distinction and exempted business travellers from quarantine. That should become the national norm. Also, given that no protocol is foolproof, the effort should be keep the guidelines simple, liberal and practical.

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