India firms up new air travel guidelines; Domestic flights to resume from 25 May

According to Mint, with domestic airline operations set to resume from airports across all major cities from 25 May, the new standard operating protocols (SOPs) put in place on Wednesday reviewed by Mint, calls for passenger boarding and disembarkation in batches as per seating arrangements in the aircraft to avoid crisscrossing inside the aircraft.

The long list of do's and dont's starts from one' home itself. Given that initially the airlines may only allow web check-ins, the passengers will need to print their boarding passes and check-in baggage tickets before they start for the airport.

Flying will never be the same again. From disallowing newspapers and magazines in the terminal building and lounges; to making it compulsory for passengers to have Arogya Setu App on their mobiles, the Indian flyer will have to conform to a new normal which almost sounds dystopian.

The SOPs for 'recommencement of domestic flights' state that only personal vehicles or select authorised taxi services or transport services with restricted seating will be permitted to enter the airport. While passengers will need to reach the airport two hours before departure, only those passengers who have departure in the next four hours will be allowed entry into the terminal building.

"All the departing passengers must compulsorily be registered with 'Arogya Setu' App on their mobiles and the same shall be verified by CISF/Airport staff at the entry gate. However, Arogya Setu is not mandatory for children below age of 14 years," the SOP said and added, "Passengers not showing "Green" on 'Arogya Setu' are not to be allowed to enter."

This comes in the backdrop of privacy concerns being raised about the app, with privacy advocates who feel the app has several security-related blackholes and can eventually become surveillance tool for the government.

All airports will also have mats or carpets soaked with bleach (sodium hypochlorite solution) placed at entrance for disinfecting shoes and thermal scanners for passengers.

The plan includes use of trolleys to be discouraged in departure and arrival area, and all luggage to be sanitised by the airport operator in the baggage break up area before putting on conveyer belt, before handing over the luggage to the passengers.

India suspended all flights since 25 March when the government first imposed a nationwide lockdown to contain covid-19 that is slated till 31 May.

The SOPs also call for the usage of open-air ventilation wherever possible instead of central air-conditioning and in cases where it is unavoidable, ensuring change in air circulation every few hours along with the change of air-filters.

Apart from social distancing markings/stickers at distance of not less than 1 meter at appropriate places; masks, gloves and hand sanitisers for passengers and staff handling passengers; airports have also been asked to put in place counters mounted with a glass or perspex/plexiglass sheet. These sheets will have a corner having magnifying area to check the flight ticket/boarding card and identification documents.

"In case the same is not feasible, the concerned personnel should wear a transparent face shield behind a counter to provide physical barrier," the SOP said.

All airports and airlines have been informed to be ready to recommence operations, civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri said in a tweet on Wednesday.

In a related development, the the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has also allowed flying training activities.

In a circular issued on Wednesday, the DGCA said that due to the coronavirus pandemic, "majority of civil aviation pilots have not been able to fly. Operators need to ensure that the pilots are current and proficient for operations and continue to meet instrument flying requirement."

During the lockdown only cargo, offshore, medical evacuation and repatriation flights have been allowed.

"We have been doing our simulator and recency training so that we are eligible to fly as soon as the flight operations begin," said a pilot with a leading airline requesting anonymity.

This comes at a time when the grounding of operations due to covid-19 induced lockdown hurt airlines dearly. The Indian aviation industry may require funding of up to INR 35,000 crore till 2022-2023 as profitability will take a hit due to sharp fall in revenues and higher fixed costs during lockdown period, credit rating agency, ICRA said.

The Airports Authority of India (AAI) has also called for fumigation of the passenger drop off/pick up zone and kerb side/land side commercial outlets and a dedicated isolation area for suspected/confirmed covid 19 patients.