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Aviation in COVID-19: Glimmer of hope in domestic airport traffic, but true revival long way off

Domestic aviation’s revival still seem a long way off as the sector has been battered by a fresh COVID wave sweeping the country.

May 17, 2021 / 06:16 PM IST
Singapore | Singapore Health Ministry on April 22 announced that it will not allow entry to long-term visa holders and short-term visitors with recent travel history to India. The government said that India is battling a second wave of COVID-19 infections and travel restrictions will help curb potential cases in the dormitories. (Image: Reuters)

Singapore | Singapore Health Ministry on April 22 announced that it will not allow entry to long-term visa holders and short-term visitors with recent travel history to India. The government said that India is battling a second wave of COVID-19 infections and travel restrictions will help curb potential cases in the dormitories. (Image: Reuters)

The busiest airport in the country at Delhi bounced back into the black in March this year reporting a growth of 5.6 per cent. It catered to 2.9 million domestic passengers as compared to 2.7 million in March last year. March is the latest month for which passenger traffic data is available in the public domain with the Airports Authority of India (AAI).

Delhi airport was not alone in turning the corner since the pandemic hit domestic aviation leading to a complete ban on domestic flights for two months till operations resumed on May 25 last year.

Another large airport, Hyderabad also turned the corner and reported a 10 per cent growth in domestic passengers handled in March this year at just under one million (9.9 lakh) as against 9 lakh domestic passengers handled in March 2020. Even Bengaluru showed some signs of revival as it reported a marginal loss of 0.7 per cent at 1.4 million domestic passengers as compared to 1.41 million in March 2020.

These large airports joined the growing number of airports in smaller towns and cities which returned to the positive zone beginning with Belgaum airport in Karnataka which was the first airport in the country to report a turnaround in terms of passengers handled in September last year (after May 25 when the COVID lockdown was partially lifted).

In September last year, Belgaum handled 23,170 domestic passengers as against 21,339 domestic passengers in the same month in 2019, a growth of 8.6 per cent.

Close

However, promising though these numbers are, domestic aviation’s revival still seem a long way off as the sector has been battered by a fresh COVID wave sweeping the country. Given the situation, analysts and industry watchers are not too optimistic about the near future as well.

For example, in a little more than a month after turning the corner, Delhi airport announced that it was shifting all its operations to a single terminal from May 18 because of fewer flights and flyers. The airport has three passenger terminals.

Domestic traffic in March 2021 was still 33 per cent below pre-COVID January 2020 levels, says a report on Indian Air Traffic Recovery conducted by ICF India. "Recovery strengthened in February but is slowing down going forward,” Pulkit Kapoor, Senior Consultant Aviation and Sharad Gambhir, Manager, Aviation, ICF India say in their report.

A part of this pessimistic prediction has to do with fluctuating COVID numbers across the country. According to V.P. Aggarwal, Former Chairman, Airports Authority of India, you can correlate the increase in passenger numbers at airports like Delhi and Hyderabad with the fluctuating COVID numbers depending on COVID’s spread and the restrictions being imposed in the place you are travelling to.

Agarwal has a point as more and more cities and states around the country are going into lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID including Maharashtra which has extended the lockdown till June 1 and Karnataka which announced a two-week lockdown on April 26.

Another issue is the low rate of vaccinations in the country. According to Nripendra Singh, Industry Principal, Aerospace & Defense Practice, Frost & Sullivan, the vaccination rate in India is expected to reach 50 per cent by the end of the year. Singh believes that this will result in an increase in domestic air traffic.

He provides a ray of hope when he indicates that before the pandemic, the demand for domestic air traffic in India over the last couple of years had been increasing organically.

"Less than one-fourth of the current domestic air traffic is driven by corporate traffic while the rest is driven by retail traffic. Once vaccinations are more widespread, the organic growth that domestic traffic witnessed in pre-COVID times, which led to 6 to 8 percent growth year-on-year will return and benefit not only the airports but also the airlines,” he says.
Ashwini Phadnis Senior journalist based in New Delhi
first published: May 17, 2021 06:13 pm

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