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COVID-19 impact | Private charter companies may be forced to ground half their fleet

Industry players contend they are in a better position to restart operations than their commercial peers. But is the government listening?

May 14, 2020 / 02:32 PM IST
 
 
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The country's private aviation sector, just like its commercial cousin, is staring at an uncertain future with fears that nearly 50 percent of the fleet  will remain grounded even after lockdown restrictions are lifted.

At the same time, contend industry players, private flights are in a better position to maintain protocol regarding social distancing and hygiene.

The country's private aviation, which has a fleet of about 350 aircraft and helicopters, has also remain suspended since March, when the government announced the lockdown to limit COVID-19.

Charter providers contend that the demand, which has slumped for commercial operators, continues to be high for private flights.

"We are getting queries every day. There are at least six calls a day. So demand is there. It is a question of when the skies reopen," Kanika Tekriwal,  founder of private charter provider JetSetGo, told Moneycontrol.

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Most of the queries, add industry players, are from Indians stuck in India and overseas. "There are people who are stuck in countries where Air India doesn't operate the repatriation flights. They need private charters to reach airports from these flights are being operated," added Tekriwal.

Businessmen too have been calling. "Entrepreneurs and chief executives want to travel to visit their factories," said Rohit Kapur, President, Jet HQ Asia, which advises customers in aircraft acquisition.

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"For instance there are businessmen in Delhi who have units in Chennai. How can they travel? We may have relaxed norms to re-start factories in green zones. But how can owners, especially those in red zones, travel," asked Kapur, who was earlier the President of Business Aircraft Opeartors Association (BAOA), an industry association in India.

Missing out

The onset of summer, during which schools close for vacation, is peak season for the aviation sector, both for commercial and private players.

"March and April are peak months for us. We have lost out on that," said Tekriwal.

Also Read | When will air traffic in India return to pre-COVID-19 levels?

This will have an impact on every company's resources, especially its ability to pay for maintenance and salaries.

JetSetGo, which counts former cricketer Yuvraj Singh and industrialist Puneet Dalmia as its investors, has a fleet of 21 planes an helicopters. Each aircraft has about two pilots.

While Tekriwal said the company hasn't resorted to pay cuts, something that commercial carriers such as IndiGo and SpiceJet have been forced to do, she accepts that it won't  be the same for her peers who are facing a cash crunch.

"These are costs that one cannot avoid. We need to keep maintaining the aircraft, which anyways are not used to being grounded for two to three months," she pointed out.  Maintenance protocol becomes more sophisticated if the grounding is longer.

Companies also have to keep training pilots. "We send our pilots overseas for training. And we need to keep doing that so that we are ready to start operations the moment government takes back the suspension," said a senior executive from a charter company on condition of anonymity.

A better option

Kapur reiterated that private charters are in a better position to maintain norms regarding hygiene and social distancing even within flights, which is something that commercial players have vehemently protested.

"Most of the times, say if the plane has eight seats, then only four are occupied. Sometimes even less....the economics of private charters doesn't depend on filling each and every seat, as is the case with commercial carriers," said Kapur.

Tekriwal also said private charters score better on the safety part. "A customer of a chartered flight has to go through much fewer touch points while boarding," she said.

Alas, the players don't have a choice but to wait for the government's nod to restart operations.

Follow our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak here
Prince Mathews Thomas heads the corporate bureau of Moneycontrol. He has been covering the business world for 16 years, having worked in The Hindu Business Line, Forbes India, Dow Jones Newswires, The Economic Times, Business Standard and The Week. A Chevening scholar, Prince has also authored The Consolidators, a book on second generation entrepreneurs.
first published: May 14, 2020 02:26 pm

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