Prepare and Prevent

The Indian airlines industry will need robust measures to be back on its feet

Smruti D

Last year in April 2019, Jet Airways, India’s second largest passenger airline landed and never took off. It was functioning in deficit and had dues to the tune of Rs 15,000 crores.

Safe Air Travel

As the numbers of Indians opting for air travel keeps soaring every year, and is said to be the highest growth in the world in terms of airline travel, it is ironic that the airlines fail to earn more than they spend. As reported by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), domestic air traffic in the year 2018 went up by 18.6 per cent which was recorded to be the highest in the world amounting to 13.90 crore passengers. However, passengers carried by domestic airlines grew only marginally at 3.11 per cent between January and October 2019 compared to the growth of 20.11 per cent during the same period in 2018.

A year after the Jet Airways crisis, airline industry continues to struggle. As of December 2019, Indian airlines’ operating losses were at a four-year high amounting to Rs. 6,845 crore which was the highest since 2015.

At a time when India’s economy is at an all-time low, Indian aviation is experiencing a financial blow due to weak demand but rising capacities. This has forced them to slash prices.

What ails the Indian airlines is the depreciating rupee and huge competition in ticket pricing and technical issues. The tax on Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF), too, is very high in India. As compared to other countries, the fuel used to be 35-40 per cent expensive, although now there is a sharp decline in fuel prices.

Passenger load factor, a measure to capacity utilisation remained moderate for the domestic airlines. In 2019, two major Indian aircrafts, IndiGo and SpiceJet, suffered a significant financial blow. While SpiceJet added 34 aircraft to its fleet and IndiGo added 30, both the major aircraft failed to realise its full passenger load factor incurring huge losses.

The already struggling airline industry now faces the repercussions of COVID-19 which has forced India and other countries to go under lockdown. A case in point is that of Boeing and Airbus, two major manufacturers of aircraft. The production of these companies, which was at its peak until recently, has now slackened. The reason: There are no buyers. Demand has gone down as airlines across the world don’t have travellers due to the pandemic. COVID-19 has cost the American aerospace industry a loss of USD175 billion. Boeing, which was already under pressure after the grounding of its 737 Max, is now facing reduced orders, both due to recession and crash crunch caused by the pandemic. Faced with plummeting stocks, it has sought a short-term assistance from the US government.

Similarly, Airbus has halted its production and other activities in both France and Spain. At the beginning of March, the company’s shares fell by more than 40 per cent. The pandemic has affected not just the major airlines and aircraft manufacturers; it has also brought a halt to firms that produce components and parts of aircraft.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) updated its airline impact assessment report which shows that worldwide, around 8,500 planes have been grounded and an estimated potential loss could be up to USD252  billion and Revenue Passenger Kilometres (RPK) would go down by 38 per cent on a year-on-year basis.

Coming back to the Indian airline market, although the government has said that it would review travel advisory on March 31, it is likely that the ban will be extended and furthermore, travellers may not opt any travel for the next few months. All this is likely to push the aviation industry into an even more precarious situation.

The pandemic has come at a time when the airlines industry was hoping to recover after a financially dismal last few years. Now, what concerns the industry most is that even after the government considers a bail out of the aviation industry, there could remain one or two companies struggling for survival. But if the government is not able to bail out, then there are chances of more than one company finding it difficult to survive. This will only have an adverse effect on the Indian economy.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) has stated in a report that due to COVID-19 domestic travel dropped by 30 per cent and fares on popular domestic routes have plunged 20-25 per cent. As cash reserves of these companies are low, the airlines are close to bankruptcy.


Battling the Virus 

As COVID-19 started to spread, Indian airports were equipped with temperature screening.  Regular sanitisation, fumigation of terminals and disinfection of airplanes was also taken care of.

Delhi airport had created separate lanes for passengers from affected countries from the gates to the health-screening zones on arrival along with a separate immigration and baggage claiming belts.

Mumbai airport, too, followed a similar protocol. Ten screening counters were set aside for passengers arriving from the affected countries.

On part of the airlines, SpiceJet made sure that its employees used hand sanitisers regularly. It also provided protective kits on its flights to prevent the spread of the virus. Vistara airlines informed their control centres for immediate action and sanitisation in the eventuality of a case being reported or observed while IndiGo airlines abided by the rules of the Airport Health Organisation (APHO).

However, as cases of COVID-19 increased, passengers from countries like the US, UK, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Nepal, Indonesia and Australia had to undergo tests. For many, it turned out a harrowing experience, with long queues, and no food and water. It was also reported that Indian airlines failed to meet the guidelines set by the aviation regulator for the prevention of the virus on domestic routes, which was not the case with foreign airlines who took additional measures.

The Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), who are in charge of maintaining airport security and safety, had set up check points. The CISF had a “created an open to sky makeshift but operationally comprehensive security screening arrangements with portable XBIS, DFMDs” to screen passengers coming in from Iran on the tarmac itself. To further the cause of minimum social contact, they had to be transferred to two Air India charters to Jaisalmer. A CISF personnel equipped with full body protective gear carried out the pre-embarkation security checks of these passengers before boarding the special Air India flight to Jaisalmer.

The CISF had deployed personnel in the arrival area of the airport and had created a ‘Triage Area’ to work with the medical team of APHO for the passengers who arrived from outside. They were deployed at 63 international airports within India.

Adopting Technology

Technology is the only way to stay ahead during times of crisis. Presently, India continues to be under a lockdown much like the rest of the world. However, it’s up to the government to ensure that travel should be possible without communicable diseases spreading, both now and in future. To make this is a reality, technological advancements have to be adopted.

Many firms in the aerospace industry are now looking at ways to make their invaluable contribution. Collins Aerospace is one of them. Speaking to FORCE about how the company would contribute to infrastructure, Sunil Raina, Managing Director, Collins Aerospace said, “We are working very closely with the local government and our customers to identify the opportunities and challenges to make air travel safer and more secure in India, and recommend innovative solutions to realise them. This is a top national priority and we’re pleased to be part of the discussions.”

SelfPass, a biometrics technology which enables facial recognition, is being offered by Collins Aerospace presently. Talking about the product, Raina said, “SelfPass is a great example of Collins Aerospace’s biometrics technology (facial recognition) which allows easy deployment and implementation to deliver a seamless journey experience for all passengers going through the airport. It benefits not just the airport but airlines and passengers as well. SelfPass eliminates the risk of errors matching passengers with their travel documents, heightens security and keeps people moving across touchpoints throughout airline operations, and within the airport.”

As in the case of COVID-19, thermal or heat sensors are being used. Thermal scanning is used to screen higher body temperature to keep infections that cause epidemic in check. They can detect rise in body temperature. They were even used in 2002-2003 during the SARS virus outbreak in foreign countries. Mumbai airport was the first in India to use it in 2009 during the Swine flu outbreak and then in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak, India used these at all its major international airports.

Raina, while speaking about Collins Aerospace’s development products, added that the company has been working on various technologies. On the asset tracking and data management solution he said that it was built locally by their India Design Centre (IDC) to help the various stakeholders at airports optimise resource usage and manage tarmac flow, prevent speeding violations, encroachments and monitoring of ramp activities to prevent and reduce accidents during ground operations.

They also have on offer Multi-Scan ThreatTrack Weather Radar system which provides flight crew with advanced weather avoidance information so they can determine flight plans to minimise disruptions to their flight.


Safety and Security Measures

The airline industry has undergone a major change over the years. Airlines and airports have adopted newer technologies as and when the need arose. Safety and security has been a major concern around shaping the way airports function.

Earlier, air travel was limited to the most privileged class around the world. However, as budget airlines were introduced, more people started travelling by flights.

As times changed, rules and regulations not only became stricter but also came to be imposed heavily on airports and in airlines. Earlier, when technology had not yet picked pace, passenger screening was barely a thing until the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US. Post that technology evolved and security was taken seriously. Cockpits were sealed off so no one from outside could enter the cabin. Security was beefed up at the airports. Detection machines were brought in to prevent explosives and weapons from being taken in.

There were world events that helped shape the airports the way they are today. Earlier, hijacking was rampant. In India, on 30 January1971, Fokker F27 airline on the Srinagar-Jammu flight was hijacked to Lahore by two Kashmiri separatists. Passengers were released on February 2 and were repatriated to India but the aircraft was set on fire. This led to an air travel ban and suspension of overflight rights until 1976.

Bombing and fire have been other major threats that airline have faced in the past. In India, an Air India flight exploded at the Tokyo airport which killed two baggage handlers and injured four others. This was carried out by a Sikh separatist organisation. These incidents in large numbers necessitated screening, ticketing and monitoring procedures.

Drug trafficking, transport of illegal or stolen goods and animal trafficking got easier due to airplanes and had an effect on countries.

Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed in the French Alps on 24 March 2015. All 144 passengers and six crew members were killed. The crash was not an accident but was caused by the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who had suicidal tendencies. He was even declared unfit to work but he hid the information. He caused the crash when the pilot left him alone in the cockpit for a few minutes. It was when the pilot left, the co-pilot locked the door from inside. This was then taken as a lesson and many airlines changes their rules and placed two crew deck members on the flight deck for safety.

Collins Aerospace has developed two more technologies – Heads-up Guidance System (HGS) and Global Connect. HGS ensures ‘enhanced vision giving pilots the power and assurance of unprecedented situational and terrain awareness in night time and low visibility in adverse in weather conditions’. Global Connect ‘allows an airline to securely and seamlessly connect with its fleet in ensuring their safety, punctuality while maintaining smooth and efficient operations’.


The Way Forward

As COVID-19 made its way across the world by spreading fast, countries took measures and resorted to lockdown by either entirely or partially suspending air travel. Many countries around the world, including India, even imposed visa curbs. This way many global events stood cancelled or postponed. Even before these measures were taken, many travellers had voluntarily decided against travelling. It showed people’s lack of confidence in travel in the time of a pandemic and it will be some time before that confidence is regained.

As the aviation industry has always been quick and receptive towards global incidents and has adopted technological advancements at every point in time, health hazards, too, should be taken in consideration. Perhaps, an instrument to track diseases should be considered. The need to be well prepared for any eventuality is one lesson that COVID-19 has taught the world.


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