The Indian government closed international and domestic air travel to contain the spread of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. While suspension of all international services was announced first, after just few days, a total suspension of air traffic was announced, thereby, vacating the skies of India of any commercial flights.
Suspending all domestic air travel was an act well timed – 48 hours after the last scheduled international flight, which meant that passengers having connecting flights had reached their destinations. With less than 48 hours to plan, execute and shut down, it was a scramble for airlines to get planes to base along with the crew.
With the uncertainty regarding the duration of the aviation closure, it was imperative that the airlines send the crew back to their home base. Accordingly, as soon as the government announced the deadline of 11:59pm on March 24, 2020, for the last of flights to land, a new scramble erupted. A battle to store the aircraft. An endeavour to park them where they can be secured and safe.
Delhi airport – India’s largest by traffic and area — had already closed one of its three runways for parking of planes. This was not an unseen phenomenon. Zurich, Frankfurt, Atlanta – a lot of global peers — among others, had done the same. But India has a different problem. The nation is still partially regulated and airlines do require permission from airport operator or the government for night parking an aircraft. An aircraft cannot be imported without having night parking in place. As a result, the over 650 aircraft have a designated night parking slot when they were imported and allowed to operate in India. Thus, ideally, every aircraft should have a dedicated parking space, at least on paper. However, with majority of the airlines in the country being Low Cost Carriers, airlines obtain night parking permission from one airport and rotate the aircraft the whole night without really parking there, which is a common practice with LCCs as their business model is built around ensuring that every aircraft is fully utilised. With a lockdown in place, it was imperative that the crew had to return to base and hence additional pressure was put on major cities, further disturbing the parking pattern of over 650 aircraft.
So, how is India tackling the aircraft parking issue? Delhi has one-third of India’s commercial fleet parked after the grounding. A staggering 205 aircraft across airlines are parked at the New Delhi airport. Mumbai is home to nearly 100 aircraft across airlines being parked, followed by Bengaluru, which has 71 aircraft, and Hyderabad with 61. Kolkata is housing 54 aircraft, while Chennai being an abode to 53. And here lies the logistic nightmare: IndiGo has parked its aircraft at eighteen airports across the country, while SpiceJet and GoAir have parked at eleven airports each. Air India has parked its aircraft at seven airports in the country, while Vistara and AirAsia India have parked their aircraft at six and five airports, respectively.
A parked plane does require some maintenance and airlines would be using minimal manpower for the same, at times, at places where facilities for carrying out the maintenance might not be always guaranteed, since aircraft are now distributed throughout the country. And thus, when the restrictions will be lifted, they would be in phases and when it happens, it would imply another logistical nightmare for the airlines for route management and crew transportation.
What do you think about the after effects of this shutdown? How long will it take for airlines to return to business as usual? And most importantly, do you think it would be ‘usual’ in the first place?