Airlines have started conducting mock drills to educate and prepare staff for the new social distancing normal due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which will promote a safe flying experience as and when commercial flights take to the skies again.
While it is not yet clear when they will be allowed to fly, aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has begun consultations with stakeholders and global counterparts to assess what precautions can be put in place after the lockdown is eased and commercial flights resume. Senior DGCA officials said they were working on a plan that would be announced when they were ready.
Among the new measures for ensuring safe operations are rear boarding to reduce contact with other passengers, setting a limit of six passengers on the step ladder to the aircraft, and allotting fewer seats out of the full capacity. Airports like Mumbai have also considered using just one terminal till flying picks up, to save costs.
Airlines said they are reducing the number of passengers who board and, ultimately, travel on each flight. A video released by SpiceJet showed the low-cost carrier conduct mock drills of its staff to prepare them for the new rules, which will be soon notified by the DGCA. The airlines have also started marking the floor of airport coaches for passengers to stand.
Boarding will also be spaced out with the aerobridge and step ladder being marked with numbering.
“In the case of a step ladder, six passengers will board at a time, leaving a gap of three steps in between. While the entire time taken from entering the airport to boarding will go up, passengers, in the absence of a dry run, will have to exercise the utmost patience,” said a SpiceJet official who participated in the mock drill.
IndiGo too has initiated markings on the floor and seats of its airport coaches. The airline will not serve on-board meals for a while after service resumes. Only passengers wearing masks and cooperating with officials in implementing the new rules on ground and in air will be allowed access.
The new COVID-19 rules for flying will require airlines to keep the middle row empty, officials said. The airlines are also looking at Atlanta-based carrier Delta, which till May 31, is boarding its flights from back to front.
“Passengers are asked to stay seated in the waiting area until their row is announced. By boarding from back to front, there is less chance of passengers passing each other as they find their seats,” said Jai Bhatia, vice-president, Travel Agents Association of India.
In a mail to IndiGo employees last week, CEO Ronojoy Dutta said the airline coaches will operate at a maximum load of 50% capacity. The airline, he said, was looking to change many operating procedures to minimise costs. “We will be coming out with the new set of operating procedures soon,” the CEO said.
New airport protocols
Airports, on the other hand, are initiating their own protocols. Thermal checking of passengers will be compulsory. The Central Industrial Security Force too has proposed changes to the way passengers use the airport once services resume.
The new protocol includes suggestions on restricting passengers in any given area and asking them to report two hours prior to the flight time. This practice will be ensured during the check-in and security check procedure. A sanitising tunnel has also been recommended.
Airports Authority of India-run Goa Airport, which has operated 21 relief flights carrying 3,500 tourists since March 25, has become a testing ground for post-lockdown rules of flying. Having seats in the Dabolim airport terminal have been marked for seating, while middle ones are to be left unoccupied. “Besides making markings at the security hold area, touchpoints like seats, railings and trolleys are constantly being sanitised by our staff,” Goa airport director Gagan Malik told The Hindu .
A Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport post on social media said staff were ensuring extensive deep-cleaning and sanitisation at the airport to ensure a coronavirus-free environment in anticipation of passengers returning. At Mumbai airport, hough no final call has been taken yet, senior airport management had as early as March 11 considered the usage of a single operational terminal (T2) till the situation normalises.
While all private airlines are available to book after April 15, national carrier Air India has stopped accepting new bookings till April 30. If that is any indication as to when one could board their next flight, it comes with a condition: responsible social distancing.