When the minister of civil aviation tweeted resumption of air services from May 25, everyone was taken in by surprise. The industry had hardly recovered from the shock of lack of sops for airlines and airports. With the extension of lockdown till end of May and inclusive of domestic and international air travel, airlines had little to look forward to for the remainder of the month.
Things moved at breakneck speed post the tweet so much so that Spicejet even opened reservations for flights, only to close it little later. The guidelines took time to come out and were in place, finally, at the end of the day. This included guidelines for airports, airlines, travelling passengers with the surprise element being a cap on passenger fares. Surprisingly, while many airlines across the world have started with empty middle seats as the norm, India is not going ahead with the same, enabling airlines to sell all available seats, albeit with a price cap.
India is probably the only country which mandated airlines to declare the bucket wise fare. A decade-old regulation mandates airlines to publish on their website the various buckets and the airfare in each of them for every sector that the airline operates and now we have taken it a step higher with a cap on fares at both ends.
If flights are allowed, why does it take so long to start selling them?
The government allowed only one-third of the flights which were approved for the summer schedule. The summer schedule begins from the last Sunday of March and lasts until the last Saturday of October. This year, airlines were already grounded when the summer schedule was to start.
The airlines are not activating all their aircraft to start flying. This means that the airlines need time to decide how many planes are needed to ensure that they can manage the operations with optimum staff and cost.
While the summer schedule was approved with the standard turnaround times in mind in the pre-COVID era, the new scenario warrants that airlines will have to increase the turnaround times from the earlier ambitious ones like 25 or 30 minutes. This means that airlines have to reach out to the airports to ask for slots as per revised ground times. While earlier an aircraft landed at 1030 and the same took off for its next flight at 1100, now it may take off at 1130 or later. This situation puts pressure on the airports, since the airports have limited bays and each aircraft will now occupy those bays for a longer duration than before.
Are the airports ready?
With over 650 aircraft grounded and not all of them taking back to the air starting May 25, there also will be a shortage of bays at the airports since the aircraft which continue to be parked will occupy considerable space leaving little for regular operations.
While the congestion would continue at the air side, the terminal will have its own challenges – from check-in to boarding with every effort to maintain social distancing. Not only is it a challenge for airport operators, it also requires the attention of the airline whose staff would manage the counters.
Both airlines and airports need time to engage with third-party service providers like ground handling agencies – who handle flights for airlines at certain airports in the country and for all airlines to check if any of their staff resides in containment zones and subsequently reach a count of how many people are needed to handle a flight and how many can actually make it? Larger cities like Mumbai and Delhi have staff staying across the city and without public transport will find it hard to reach the airport for work.
Can’t the airlines start selling and then adjust timings?
Yes, that could have been a possibility. But airline revenue management and distribution systems work on the basis of RBD or Reservation Booking Designator or booking class in layman terms. The revenue management teams work with systems which help with algorithms and number crunching to come up with fares for each class and how many seats are to be sold in that fare class. This system helps the airlines maximise revenue based on demand.
Until now the systems worked on the basis of past data, manual inputs and demand pattern. However, the government has now capped the lower and higher fares based on the flying time between the cities. Along with this, the government has also mandated that 40 percent of the seats should be sold at a fare which is less than the midpoint of the fare band.
This means, redrawing the RBD, pushing the new fares in the system and then making it available across distribution channels which include the airline website, OTAs, travel agencies amongst others. While this requires considerable effort, the current situation where everybody works from home makes it a tad bit harder and time consuming.
Could this have been done better?
Definitely yes, but in the end we have a history of pulling off everything. While it would have been better to give more days to plan for airlines, airports, states and cities to ensure that there is public transport available amongst others, we will pat ourselves on the back to start a countrywide operation with limited lead time.
The next few days will see stranded folks rush to book tickets, even as many await the refund of their money from airlines with a case pending in the Supreme Court. Will this help airlines? Not in the true sense, the one-third operations only rule with fare cap remains in place till August but then even the grounding was till the end of May and we are starting earlier so one never knows when things will change!Ameya Joshi runs the aviation analysis website Network Thoughts.