Flight operations get off to a turbulent start, chaos mars Day 1

Passengers grappled with cumbersome and constantly sprouting government rules, technical glitches, lack of transport while reaching airports and long queues therein as India stumbled into its first day of resumed domestic flights, two months...

Flight operations get off to a turbulent start, chaos mars Day 1
Passengers grappled with cumbersome and constantly sprouting government rules, technical glitches, lack of transport while reaching airports and long queues therein as India stumbled into its first day of resumed domestic flights, two months after they were suspended in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.India’s busiest airports in Mumbai and Delhi cancelled close to 200 flights since last night. While the curtailment led to confusion and disgruntlement among passengers, they also made for much lesser crowds that made social distancing easier and operations less chaotic than they would have been.The airports were mostly deserted with passengers wearing masks and gloves and airport staff with PPE suits manning counters and passages. Many passengers ET spoke to said they travelled out of compulsion to return home after being stuck for days or to visit an ailing family member. Most were students or young trainees. At the airport airline personnel supplied them protection kits—masks, vizers, gloves and sachets of sanitizers.Pritam Kumar Behera, a management trainee in Faridabad, had booked a flight for May 18. That got cancelled and he had to pay double to get a flight on Monday. Behera, travelling to Bhubaneswar, on a 4 pm flight reached the Delhi airport at 11 am.Neeraj Paseeja, a financial consultant working in Bangalore flew home to Delhi to take care of his ailing father who is now on ventilator support. Nikhil Kumar, with his two cousins, flew from Delhi to their home town in Patna as their parents wanted them home. A soldier from Kashmir was unwell and flew to his family in Delhi the first chance he got.The government has put in place several rules—compulsory web check in; updating details on its Aarogya Setu app or on physical forms; reaching airports early and carrying just one check-in baggage—to ensure safe flights with the least amount of contact to minimize the spread of the virus. In addition to that, state governments have implemented their own rules like mandatory ePasses on state-run apps or quarantines for arriving flyers. The Centre had last week approved a flight schedule which was a third of the number of flights operated during pre-covid times. Last evening, pressured by states that didn’t want to let flyers in, it mandated airlines to further curtail schedules to a bare minimum number of flights especially to and from cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad. In some cities, the resumption of flights has been deferred by a couple of days. Digital and marketing teams across airlines worked overnight to update websites and inform passengers about cancelled flights and new rules. Many failed. An airport executive said many passengers came thronged airport ticket counters late last night to check the status of their flights today.Today, passengers faced problems right from the start. Reaching some airports like in the heavily locked down city of Mumbai was cumbersome, as no public transport was operational. Mumbai airport operators are trying to authorise a handful of cab from aggregators such as Ola and Uber for arriving passengers, said a person in the know, but nothing has been finalised yet.At the airports, many passengers, especially those travelling to smaller towns, didn’t have the Aarogya Setu apps or e-passes needed to gain entry into cities they were travelling to. Some didn’t even have smartphones. That led to confusion, delays and serpentine queues.“About 95% of passengers travelling to cities like Bengaluru had web-checked and updated their details of the apps. But for passengers travelling to non-metros such as Lucknow and Patna, that number was just 30%,” Charnel D’Souza, head of airports, western region at IndiGo, told ET.In such cases, airline executives came out with boarding passes and instructed the passengers to either download the app or fill out physical forms. That delayed their entry into the airport by 30 to 40 minutes. Pankaj Handa, head of ground staff for Vistara said, about 80% of all passengers had web-checked in.IndiGo will operate just 230 flights on Monday, less than a sixth of its normal schedule and less than half of what it had been approved to fly last week. Vistara will operate just 20 odd flights, compared to 51 decided till last afternoon—to 10 cities across the country.In several cases, technical glitches at airline websites proved to be major hurdles. Sunil K, a journalist, who was travelling from Delhi to Madurai couldn’t get himself web checked-in on the Air India Express website. Instead, he mailed his details and got his boarding pass as a Whatsapp message from an airline executive. At the Delhi airport, the security personnel wouldn’t let him in, despite the intervention of senior airline executives who were present and overseeing the process. Finally, a physical boarding pass had to be printed.The biggest problem was new entry and quarantine rules imposed by state governments.Governments in states such as Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have mandated passengers update details on their state-run applications and get ePasses for travelling from the airport to their final destinations.Sunil K saw the Tamil Nadu TNePAss portal had requirements only for inter-city road travel and asked for irrelevant details such as check-posts he would cover. After grappling with it throughout the night, he finally had his wife fill in details while he travelled. He didn’t get an ePass. Upon reaching Madurai, he found the state collector had overnight mandated institutional quarantine for arriving passengers, a sudden rule-change he didn’t know about.IndiGo’s D’Souza and Vistara’s Handa both said disseminating information about new state government rules is a challenge. When a passenger came to the airport, having applied for but not obtaining a pass, it fell on the officials at the source airport to contact local state officials at the destination and get approvals for those passengers. Many had to be turned away.More and more states such as Punjab are now directing flyers to share personal and health data on state-run apps.One other problem was a paucity of health department officials. Every arriving passenger needs to be thermal scanned and his (self/institutional) quarantine papers signed by such an official. Passengers at the IndiGo’s Delhi-Mumbai flight that arrived at 7:45 am, had to wait for 40 minutes before a single health department official came and screened them.Handa said there have been such glitches at smaller airports.“In such cases we took the initiative of increasing screening counters,” he said.Passengers have been angry about cancelled flights and higher fares. But airline executives claimed they are doing what they can to minimize problems. Handa also said Vistara is trying what it can to accommodate passengers who reach late because of intra-city transport problems.“If a passenger reaches late due to problems in intra-city transport, we are accommodating him on the next flight or giving him a change-of-date without charging a fare difference or penalty. We would do so for passengers who suffer from anxiety after reaching the airport and decide not to fly,” he added.