Government has ordered suspension of domestic flights from March 25
Airlines in India face logistical challenges as they race against time to wind up operations, ensure crews are back home and park aircraft before the deadline expires to suspend flights at midnight of March 24.
"The airlines need to do this keeping in mind passenger bookings, and they have to do it despite operating a truncated schedule. It's a network planner and crew scheduler's nightmare," says Shakti Lumba, an aviation veteran and former Executive Director, Airline Operations (Alliance Air), and Vice President, Ops (IndiGo).
The government, on March 23, suspended domestic flights - except solely cargo-carrying flights - in efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus.
"Airlines have to plan operations so as to land at their destination before 2359 hours on 24/3/2020. The restrictions shall not apply to solely cargo-carrying flights," the communication from the Ministry of Civil Aviation added.
- To get the crew back home
- Park the aircraft
- Process requests from customers
The first two tasks are unprecedented as never have the country's entire fleet been grounded at the same time. All airlines put together have about 660 aircraft.
Also, crews are spread across cities. Getting them back to their home bases is particularly difficult because of the reduced operations.
For the third, which is to process requests from customers to cancel or reschedule tickets, the airlines thankfully have a little more time.
Getting crew back
Within a couple of hours of the government's announcement on March 23, IndiGo sent out a communication to its crew detailing the process that the airline will follow.
"Pilots shall be assigned flights such that they come back to their allocated bases," said the communication from the airline's Flight Operations Senior Vice President.
"Pilots on layovers shall be either assigned flights to operate back to their base or they shall be planned as deadheading," the mail added.
Deadheading in aviation parlance is when an airline carries its own staff - who are off duty - on a scheduled flight.
The communication has asked pilots - who are deadheading - to be in uniform so that they are available to operate a flight in case there is a need.
IndiGo's peers have taken similar steps.
But, getting each crew member back to his or her home base is easier said than done.
A senior pilot from an airline told Moneycontrol that "we cannot get everyone back tomorrow because of operational reasons such as parking the aircraft in different airports."
The pilot explained. "So if someone from Delhi is sent on a commercial flight to, say Bengaluru, and the aircraft has to be parked there at night. Then the crew won’t come back. Many such situations are arising now. All crew members won’t be able to come back."
So, what happens to pilots and cabin crew that are stuck?
There is a solution.
In its order suspending domestic flights, government has made an exception to let airlines fly cargo-only flights.
"If airlines fly cargo-only flights then the crew can be moved. They will be listed as crew on the flight, and they can be moved back to their home bases," said the pilot quoted above.
Last time an airport in the country had parking woes was back in 2010 when the volcano eruption in Iceland forced airlines to ground their fleet. Many of the international airlines' aircraft were stuck in Delhi's IGI Airport, and its runway 27 became a parking lot.
It is a similar situation now. The only difference is that, this time, nearly every runway in all the major airports across the country will become parking spaces for aircraft. But, there could be parking issues.
Delhi, which probably has the biggest parking space, can only accommodate 200 aircraft.
And, that is not all.
"If aircraft have to be parked, the engineering department has to ensure that the planes are secured properly and before they fly, all checks have to be carried out. Timely checks have to be carried out if the lockdown is longer," said Amit Singh, an industry veteran and Fellow of London's Royal Aeronautical Society.
This is an additional challenge for airports too.
"The challenge is how they will restart the operations later and how they will carry out maintenance on taxiways," said one of the executives quoted above.
The airlines, as of now, are planning their Human Resources and managing their fleet to be ready to resume operations with the suspension lifts after March 31."We shall position all our aircraft and crew members to their allocated base in order to resume operations after 2359 hours on 31/03/2020. Therefore, please be available to accept duties at the end of the suspension period," said the IndiGo communication.
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