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Aviation badly needs clear, transparent rules to accelerate return to normalcy

Predictability in relaxing curbs is the need of the hour for airlines and airports already grappling with a downturn.

June 09, 2021 / 06:27 PM IST

Aviation has been one of the worst hit sectors due to the pandemic. In India, airlines have to make do with three sets of regulations—at a national level, state level and city level. At the national level, the government has stepped in by capping the capacity. In addition to that, even fares have a band with a floor price and a ceiling price that are being set by the government.

At the state level, there are those like West Bengal that allow flights from Maharashtra to be operational only on certain days of the week. And if as much regulation was not enough, at the city level, there are regulations around RT-PCR reports.

In other words, airlines are grappling with multiple challenges. They have to manage scheduling and routing. There is also the issue of managing layovers for the crew or taking a decision to dead-head them back to their base.

While against the free market, the aviation minister has been supportive of the idea of caps so as to ensure that all airlines continue to remain in the field and a dominant carrier does not undercut the market and lead to fall of weaker ones.

But amid this pandemonium, there is an urgent need to get rules in black and white to ensure that neither the airports, passengers or airlines are left guessing on when the capacity will be back. Both Mumbai and Delhi have had to shut a few terminals and consolidate operations at a single terminal leading to losses for not just the airport but also the retailers at the terminals which were closed.

Why have a path laid out?

With capacity capped at 50%, there is no clarity on when it would be revised upwards again or worse—go downwards. While the passenger trend has started moving upwards, it would be wise to have a clear number to know when it would be revised upwards.

If the passenger numbers cross 1 lakh a day thrice in 15 days, the capacity can immediately go up to 60% and if the numbers cross 2 lakh a day in a specific period of time, the capacity could go further up to 70% and so on.

Alternatively, this could also be linked to the flights deployed. In the past, as the flight deployment started inching closer to the capacity allowed - additional relaxations were put in place. This took the capacity from 33% to 45% and onwards to 60%, 70% and 80%.

How does this help?

Pre-COVID, only the monthly data of passenger numbers was being released by the regulator. Since re-start of air services, the ministry has increased its transparency and has shared data on a daily basis for most days.

With data in public domain and a set rule in place, it gives a heads up to both airports and airlines to plan their operations by looking at the trend. Moreover, the passenger also benefits. Airlines and airports have seen their services curtailed or pulled out due to a mix of capacity cap and market condition. A potential traveller wouldn’t think of air travel as an option since the flight isn’t operational but could be in future. It is a loss for the passenger and also the airline.

Not averse to the idea

The minister himself had stated that the government would be open to opening up the sector completely if there are more than 3.5 lakh passengers three times in a month. It is unfortunate that immediately after this statement was made, the downward spiral started and we reached almost the levels of a year ago within days!

Just as a proposal was floated to open up to 100%, a similar step wise proposal can be put in place to ensure that there is transparency and more importantly there is a predictability in operations which helps every stakeholder plan well.

Tail Note

The achievement based opening model is not new to the aviation industry. It has also been used in bilateral rights negotiation where a new method was introduced in the National Civil Aviation Policy of 2016. It ensured that a renegotiation is possible when both sides cross 80% of their mandated rights under the Air Services Agreement. This ended the uncertainty or cases of countries wanting to increase rights without reciprocal demand from Indian carriers.

The system is very much accepted and all that is needed is to be put in place to ensure that we tide over the current times with predictability and not arbitrarily.
Ameya Joshi runs the aviation analysis website Network Thoughts.
first published: Jun 9, 2021 06:27 pm

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