One step at a time, the Indian government was closing in on travel to contain the spread of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. While suspension of all international services was announced first, what was expected did happen eventually – a total suspension of air traffic within India.
It was well timed – 48 hours after the last scheduled international flight into India. This meant that connecting passengers had reached their destinations. Even before the announcement was made on March 23, Indian airlines had grounded nearly half its fleet as passengers stayed away from air travel.
With less than 48 hours to plan, execute and shut down, it was a scramble for airlines to get planes to base and also the crew. The initial indefinite suspension was curtailed to midnight of March 31, only to be now pushed ahead due to the national lockdown.
With a lot of uncertainty around the duration of the closure, it was imperative that the airlines send the crew back to their home base. Not only would it add to airlines' costs to house the crew in a hotel, at a time when they are earning no revenue, but also the situation wouldn’t be favourable for the crew to be stuck at a place away from home. Besides, one wouldn’t know if hotels would continue to function or not!
As soon as the government announced the deadline of 23:59 pm on March 24 for the last of flights to land, social media was abuzz with questions about parking the planes. WhatAapp chatrooms were flooded with messages about where the airlines would park their planes. Delhi airport – India’s largest by traffic and area — had already closed one of its three runways for parking of planes. It was not an uncommon phenomenon. Zurich, Atlanta and Frankfurt – a lot of global peers — had done the same. A different problem
But India had a different problem. A fleet of 650 commercial aircraft as well as private jets, comprising other non-scheduled operators, would have to be parked indefinitely. Unlike most other aviation markets, India is still partially regulated and airlines require permission from the government or airport operator for night parking a plane. An aircraft cannot be imported without having night parking in place. Thus, the over 650 planes have a designated night parking slot when they were imported and allowed to operate in India.
That begs the question why use the runway to park planes. Airlines obtain night parking permission from one airport and rotate the aircraft the whole night without really parking there.
Another common practices is to ensure control on costs and many a night parking stations may not have a crew base – the crew night halts and operates to a different destination the next day, all along being based at a major metro like Mumbai, Delhi or Bengaluru. With a lockdown in place, it was imperative that the crew returns to base and hence additional pressure on major cities.Where are the planes parked?
The question still remains – where are the over 650 planes parked? Air India had nearly 20 of its aircraft grounded, a number also confirmed in its Preliminary Information Memorandum (PIM), which was published for privatisation. Along with Air India, SpiceJet has all its B737 MAX8 aircraft grounded since last year and all its B737-900 aircraft either stored or re-delivered. While Air India has its own space, Spicejet doesn’t and has to rely on airports for bays.
A NetworkThoughts analysis aided by FlightRadar24 shows that Delhi has one-third of India’s commercial fleet parked after the grounding. A staggering 205 aircraft across airlines are parked at the New Delhi airport. IndiGo – India’s largest carrier by domestic market share and fleet — has over 60 aircraft parked at Delhi. That is one-fourth of its fleet. National carrier Air India, which has its hub at Delhi, has nearly 50 percent of its fleet parked there.
Mumbai is seeing nearly 100 aircraft across airlines being parked, followed by Bengaluru, which has 71 aircraft, and Hyderabad with 61. The Airports Authority of India controlled Kolkata and Chennai airports come in next with 54 and 53 aircraft, respectively.What is the spread across airlines?
IndiGo has parked its aircraft at 18 airports across the country, while SpiceJet and GoAir have parked at 11 airports each. Air India has parked its aircraft at seven airports in the country, while Vistara and AirAsia India – the Tata group airlines – have parked their aircraft six and five airports, respectively.
As is the case with traffic in the country, the top six airports Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kolkata account for 85 percent of all the parked aircraft, with some airlines having parked aircraft at Indore, Pune, Amritsar, Guwahati, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Lucknow, Calicut, Thiruvananthapuram, amongst others.What next?
A parked plane does require some maintenance and airlines would be using minimal manpower to ensure that the maintenance is carrier out as per the manufacturer guidelines. The most impacted airlines could be the smaller ones like Truejet and StarAir, who do not have a large manpower to alternate resources for maintenance, unlike the larger ones.
It is anybody’s guess on when the restrictions will be lifted and if they would be in phases. All depends on how effectively the spread of coronavirus has been contained. To think the lifting of sanctions will see all planes in the air at once is a mirage and airlines are in this for a long battle. No wonder its being termed unprecedented.
Note: The above table indicates 622 aircraft that were in operation and parked. SpiceJet had its 13 B737MAX8 parked for a year, which aren’t accounted for, and Air India's stored aircraft amount to 19. These take the total grounded aircraft to 654.Ameya Joshi runs the aviation analysis website Network Thoughts. Ameya writes a lot on aviation.