Domestic passenger flights resume today amid confusion over quarantine rules

Domestic passenger flights to resume Monday amid confusion over protocols, quarantine
A worker sprays disinfectant at Jai Prakash Narayan International Airport following the resumption of domestic flights from May 25, during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown, in Patna, Sunday. Photo: PTI
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New Delhi: Indian skies opened up for domestic passenger flights from Monday after a gap of two months amid confusion over what quarantine rules may apply to the travellers but some states will see "limited" operations and the resumption delayed by up to three days.

Bookings had opened for around 1,050 domestic flights planned for Monday but the revised measures announced on Sunday have led to cancellation of several flights leaving hundreds of passengers disappointed. The airlines, which were allowed to operate one-third of their capacity, will now have to further rework their flight schedules.

Government officials said the airports in Kolkata and Bagdogra in cyclone-hit West Bengal will not operate any domestic flights between May 25 and 27 but will handle 20 flights each per day from May 28.

The airports in Mumbai in Maharashtra and Hyderabad in Telangana will daily handle 50 and 30 flights respectively from Monday, they said. The Maharashtra government had requested the Centre to keep the air services in the state at a minimum possible level. Mumbai is the country's second busiest airport.

All the flights account for equal number of arrivals and departures, officials said.

There will be "limited" flights from Mumbai starting tomorrow and as per approved one-third schedule from other airports in the state, said Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri on Twitter.

Puri also tweeted to say that maximum 25 flights per day can arrive in Chennai from Monday and there will be no limit on number of departures. For other airports in Tamil Nadu, flights will operate as in other parts of the country.

The minister said operations will resume on a "limited" scale in Andhra Pradesh from Tuesday following a request from the state government. Flights operate to Vijayawada and Vizag airports in the state.

It has been a long day of hard negotiations with various state governments to recommence civil aviation operations in the country, he said.

States like Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu were opposed to immediate opening up of their airports in view of rising cases of the coronavirus infection. The three states are home to some of the busiest airports in the country in terms of passenger traffic.

As India enters the last week of the thrice extended lockdown for 68 days, the resumption of domestic flights comes at a time when new coronavirus cases in the country crossed 6,000 for the third consecutive day on Sunday, surging to a record single day spike of 6,767 infections. The fourth phase of national lockdown to fight the COVID-19 pandemic is due to end on May 31.

The imposition of quarantine rules by several states which are at odds with each other also triggered concern among the flying and cabin crew of the airlines.

The Union Health Ministry, meanwhile, issued its own set of guidelines for domestic air, rail and road travel and also said states can also develop their own protocol with regards to quarantine and isolation as per their assessment. Passengers were also advised to download the contact tracing application Aarogya Setu on their mobile devices.

The ministry while listing out its quarantine protocol among other steps suggested thermal screening at entry and exit points and said asymptomatic passengers will be permitted to go after reaching the destination with the advice they shall self-monitor their health for 14 days.

AirAsia said on Twitter that all passengers must read the health protocols of the destination states and it would "not be responsible for repatriating or bearing any quarantine or related costs of any guests".

Maharashtra is the worst affected state with 50,231 cases after it recorded the highest daily spike of 3,041 COVID-19 infections on Sunday. It is followed by Tamil Nadu which recorded 16,277 coronavirus cases.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had sought more time from the Civil Aviation Ministry for restarting the operations at the Mumbai airport. He also said minimum possible domestic flights from Maharashtra be initiated from Monday.

Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said on Twitter it is "extremely ill-advised" to reopen airports in red zones.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had urged the Centre to postpone resumption of domestic flight services at Kolkata and Bagdogra airports by a few days.

Officials said the first flight on Monday is scheduled to depart from Mumbai for Patna at 4.20 AM. Similarly, the first flight from Delhi airport was for Kolkata at 4.30 AM which now stands cancelled. Both are Indigo flights.

Scores of pilots and first officers PTI spoke to appeared to be concerned about the lack of clarity on quarantine requirements for them. Many of them raised concerns over issues like quarantine procedures, personal and family safety, and flying into regions badly hit by the pandemic.

"There is no clarity on whether I need to go into home quarantine for 14 days after returning to my base or show up for duty on Monday," a pilot said, requesting anonymity.

The Centre's decision to resume services came as the aviation sector reeled under severe stress triggered by the lockdown in force since March 25.

Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bihar, Punjab, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir were among the states which have announced their respective quarantine measures for passengers arriving at their airports.

Some states decided to put passengers on mandatory institutional quarantine for a specified period while several others talked about putting them under home quarantine or both.

The Delhi government directed authorities to ensure compliance of the Union Health Ministry''s guidelines on domestic travel, according to an official order.

Minister Puri on Saturday questioned the need for quarantine if a passenger is shown green status in Aarogya Setu app. The green status signifies that a passenger is safe.

Several executives from a number of airlines said since Mumbai and Kolkata airports handle a significant share of domestic flights, the operators are expecting the Centre to clarify the "prevailing confusion" relating to quarantine.

"Clarity is required on matters regarding quarantine and flights to Mumbai and Kolkata as it is affecting our bookings. Passengers are reluctant to book in such an environment," an executive of a low cost carrier said earlier in the day.

Amid some uncertainty over which all flights will operate, officials said representatives of airline and several states held multiple meetings with top officials of the Civil Aviation Ministry on Sunday covering a range of contentious issues like quarantine rules for flyers and standard operating procedures for leading airports.

The Jammu and Kashmir government said all incoming passengers will have to undergo 14 days of "administrative quarantine".

Similarly, the Kerala government said on Friday that all flyers will be under a 14-day home quarantine and that it has made an exception to those coming for business purpose or for a short duration.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had said all incoming passengers will be put in home quarantine for 14 days while the Bihar government said that travellers will be put on "paid quarantine" for 14 days.

Passengers coming to Andhra Pradesh would be put under home quarantine, said the state government, adding that once their test results for COVID-19 come negative, they will be relieved from isolation.

The Assam government said it will be putting flyers on a 14-day quarantine. The passengers might be distributed equally in home quarantine and government quarantine, it clarified.

Karnataka government's health ministry made it clear that anyone coming from states where there is "high prevalence" of COVID-19 will be kept in institutional quarantine for seven days and if tested COVID-negative the passenger will have to spend the next seven days in home quarantine.

Karnataka has classified Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh as "high prevalence" states.

The passengers coming through the remaining states to Karnataka will have to undergo 14 days of home quarantine.

However, the state government clarified that special cases where businessmen are coming for urgent work will not require to undergo any quarantine if they bring test results that are not more than two days old and show them COVID-negative.

(With inputs from agencies)

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