‘Uncertainty on domestic flights caused by states’: Hardeep Puri
Some states were not ready to resume domestic flight operations, said aviation minister Hardeep Puri, underlining that they had to be persuaded to come on board. The minister talked about the Centre’s exit strategy from the lockdown, why the government may not be able to provide a financial bailout to airlines in an interview with Hindustan Times’ Anisha Dutta.
Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:
Q: Domestic flight resumption took off with a lot of confusion over flight cancellations. Has the situation improved now?
A: It is not correct to use the term confusion here. There was uncertainty because some states decided to not resume flight operations on May 25. We have had multiple discussions with them prior to the announcements on the domestic flights. We had also issued a central SOP for domestic travel but many went ahead and issued their own guidelines. Many of their SOPs came in very late and our meeting with the airlines ended by around 9 pm. Many cancellations occurred due to this.
The situation is now stabilised and much better with just six cancellations on day two and 445 flight departures ferrying 30,944 passengers and 447 arrival flights with 31,697 passengers.
Q: Would it not have been easier if states were taken on board prior to the announcement?
A: The states have been on board from day one, contrary to what is being said. Discussions with them started as early as May 15. When we announced the resumption on 22nd, we had held several rounds of discussion, before deciding to give it three more days. There were a few things. First, whether the state is willing to accept, some states were not keen but when they were told economic activity is needed, they changed their mind. Second, are the airports ready? All our airports were ready on the 15th, airlines were ready but they wanted six days’ notice.
What happened in this was two or three states could not take flights, they told us very frankly our doctors and all are not in a position, they are in a cyclone condition so we said you take your time…It is not a question of explaining why but the press became a commentator, it played headlines like “total chaos” and some people said let’s not fly. What is the chaos? The chaos is on some flights being cancelled. What are the reasons some flights are cancelled? It is very clear because the state government has a problem. Second issue was that the SOPs were issued by the states very late. Now the SOPs are in place. Andhra Pradesh has opened up. West Bengal will on May 28.
Q: There are a few Covid-19 positive cases reported in flights since the resumption. Were you prepared for it?
A: We were. We have taken the precautions at airports where you don’t need any human contact; you print out your boarding pass, your luggage gets sanitised, then you are inside the aircraft with the protective gear and the aircraft is also disinfected. We have taken as many measures as humanly possible. But I keep saying there is a risk in everything. There is a massive conflict between those who want things to desperately open and go about their work and those who pick up any case and make a big thing about it. Airlines are equipped to deal with cases. If they have a positive case and they decide to ground the crew, the airlines will have to pay that price.
Q: What about international flight operations, are we prepared to resume?
A: I don’t see that happening for some time. International civil aviation traffic is dependent on something completely different, it depends on other countries, international trade and business activity. Will the demand of international traffic continue to be low, what will be the new norm? Aravind Panagariya had said, even when you had big disruptions earlier trade still picked up globally. I see it picking up again, but it is too early to say. In India we have a pretty stable domestic traffic, it will pick up as people will want to move.
Q: But you had earlier said it could resume by August?
A: I was asked if you will be able to start international civil aviation by August or September, I had said we could do that even earlier. What does that mean? We have two months to go. We are already scaling up the number of people we are bringing back through Vande Bharat Mission. Our idea was to bring those people back who were genuinely stranded and distressed. But many of the people coming back are not stranded in the manner in which we originally envisaged when the scheme was announced.
Q: How much is your estimate of the total debt in the aviation sector?
A: You can only do a damage assessment when the resumption has taken place because the damage is on a continuing basis.
Q: Do you see any Indian airline closing down?
A: I hope not but they are under stress. I am not going to get involved in that but there are two issues involved. As a government, we have to be acutely cautious and mindful of all that needs to be done on the health factor and make sure people are safe and that is paramount, but equally we also have to be conscious about what is happening to the economy. It’s been two months since airports and airlines have not had any revenue, even parked aircraft on ground also cost money. And even if you don’t have 100% flights running, you can at least have some cost being recovered.
Q: When can we expect a financial bailout of the sector?
A: First of all if financial bailouts were taking place why would so many global airlines have gone bust?... It is a difficult situation. We have given a large number of measures to mitigate their stress. But I am not sure that the system as it is structured right now is geared to giving any bailout. Even the media sector is facing a lot of financial stress, many newspapers are going to go and channels are also facing problems. Is the government going to give a bailout? I can be polite and say, yes press is very important but I don’t see that happening. The business model of airlines is particularly precarious. But the government can’t give billion dollar bailouts. It doesn’t happen for any sector in India. We will support their demands on Aviation Turbine Fuel taxation, that will get rationalized among other measures but we can’t bailout an individual. That will mean we are giving taxpayers’ money to bail out an individual business.
Q: What happens to the Air India divestment plan?
A: It is on. Air India has to be divested, there is absolutely no question on that. At this stage, to keep anything going by way of subsidy is almost impossible to justify.
Q: Will we see further easing of restrictions after May 31?
A: One hundred per cent. I am speaking in my personal capacity, of course.
Q: What is the exit strategy from the lockdown going forward?
A: Mr Rahul Gandhi says lockdown has been a failure. Let us look at the situation, you had two months of lockdown, at the very least the lockdown has succeeded in keeping the numbers at a very low level. The mortality rate today is 2.7%. It has come down from 3%, total number of cases, my figure may not be exact, at 150,000 and around 70,000 recovered. But the lockdown achieved another significant objective—it kept the numbers low and it gave us time to build the health infrastructure. We were able to go from complete import of PPEs to a massive domestic production, where today we are one of the largest producers of PPEs in the world.
Reviving the economy, agriculture sector, opening factories, starting construction etc, that is the exit strategy.
Q: So, you’re saying the main idea of the lockdown was to get time to prepare the medical infrastructure, and be prepared for more cases?
A: When the virus hit us, we were one of the first countries to act fast on it. I cancelled flights from China in a big decision, we stopped flights to the extent possible from other hotspots, we began screening, as our international airports we screened more than 15 lakh people coming in, we evacuated people from outside and finally and most importantly we were able to get a system in place to prepare our health infrastructure across states. Our figure now looks high but the total number of deaths is very low, about 4,000 or so, those are the number of deaths you have in five days in traffic accidents. The mortality rate is 2.7% whereas for SARS it was 17%. You have to learn to live with the virus.
Mr Gandhi said lockdown was a failure, what is plan B? Lockdown has not been a failure, it has enabled us to control the numbers and build your infrastructure and to prepare for the exit strategy.
You have to, in any system, take precaution, which we did in a timely manner and succeeded in controlling the numbers. Being permanently in lockdown is not a solution, you have to prepare an exit strategy. Mobility is an essential part of the exit strategy. When you are in lockdown, the economic activity takes a severe beating and you have to revive that. The strategy is to open up the supply chain and start operation of essential goods and services and mobility is very much a part of that.