Early take-off: On resumption of air travel

With no consensus on health monitoring of passengers among States, travel remains risky

Even after long negotiations with States, and with a truncated schedule, the Centre has found it difficult to relaunch domestic flights. Several were cancelled on the first day services were resumed after being frozen on March 25. Some Chief Ministers, notably Uddhav Thackeray in Maharashtra and Edappadi Palaniswami in Tamil Nadu expressed apprehension about a premature resumption of civil aviation, as the spread of COVID-19 is unrelenting, and quarantine monitoring has its limits. The experience of flight cancellations, passenger frustration and low capacity among States to track thousands of passengers should prompt a rethink on scheduled flights. Access to emergency air travel in a large country is a legitimate expectation, and a targeted programme run efficiently can meet that need, without induced demand produced by commercial flights. Going back to the drawing board to draft a plan for emergency travel, using documentation and aggregation of such passengers may be the short-term option. The risks associated with domestic aviation have multiplied due to early missteps in several States: mass gatherings, political events and consumer crowding for panic buying have resulted in major transmission clusters. The trajectory of fresh COVID-19 cases shows that this was aggravated by the bungled response to the concerns of migrant labour, exposing thousands of workers and their communities to infection. Understandably, States, which have denied the presence of community transmission, want to reduce the pace at which they must monitor newly arriving individuals.

Enabling scheduled travel through national policy, whether by air or rail, could be seen as a reasonable effort only when State governments are fully prepared, and adopt a uniform code of practice. Within the lockdown, the virus crisis has snowballed only in States such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, and in Delhi, but that picture could change with the operation of daily flights, a couple of hundred scheduled trains from June 1 and the large number of promised Shramik Special trains for migrant workers. It is essential, therefore, for States to adopt a coordinated approach on quarantine and testing. Travel choices, in the present phase, should be designed to discourage optional journeys. Moreover, passengers on all flights, including relief flights, could have a lower risk if airlines and the government keep the middle seats vacant as decided on March 23 by the DGCA. There is no reason to think that the pandemic has begun to wane. The global aviation map shows that even market economies placing great emphasis on individual freedoms have severely limited travel, making exceptions only for returning citizens. Relaxing travel must be preceded by focused containment measures and an agreed protocol for States.

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Printable version | Jul 16, 2020 8:02:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/early-take-off-on-resumption-of-air-travel/article31674729.ece

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