It is anticipated that domestic flight services will resume soon though in a limited way. However, the challenge for resumption of services is that more than 90% of the domestic flight routes connect a place in the red zone. Moreover, 21 of the top-25 busy routes in India connect places, both of which are in the red zone.
All modes of public transport in the country were closed because of the lockdown. Even the railway services for passengers were stopped around 50 days ago, when the nation-wide lockdown was imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19. However, since 12 May 2020, passenger train services have been resumed partially, on some designated routes. A few special trains connecting major cities from Delhi are now operational. The railways will gradually increase the number of trains. However, only asymptomatic ticket holders will be permitted to travel. The Ministry of Home Affairs has also issued a Standard Operating Procedure (SoP) for the passengers. Since the railways resumed operations, it is anticipated that air travel may also resume soon.
Air Travel may also resume soon
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has hinted that domestic flights will also resume operation soon. There is demand from people stranded in different cities for resuming airline services. If airline services are to resume, the aviation industry is also expected to come up with precautionary measures such as mandatory social distancing within the flight, masks, screening, among others, and a SoP as in the case of railways. Operations may start from a few cities initially, and gradually expand to other major cities. Unfortunately, majority of the cities with substantial contribution to the domestic air traffic are in the red zone.
We analyse the domestic air traffic data, available on the DGCA website to identify the 25 busiest routes in India and how many of them fall in the red zone.
Monthly data on city wise air traffic is released by DGCA
DGCA provides monthly data on air traffic in domestic routes across the country. The latest city-wise data available is that of January 2020. February 2020 data is yet to be published. The city wise data shows the number of passengers who travelled to and from a pair of given cities.
More than 90% of the domestic flight routes connect a place in the Red zone
The data from January 2020 shows that there are 538 routes in total across India. A summary of the COVID-19 zones, as classified by the Central Government, in which each of the two cities that the route connects, is located is as follows. It has to be noted that the classification was last done on 30 April.
It is evident from the above table that 40% of the domestic flight routes connect cities both of which are in the red zone. Around 34% of the routes are those which connect a place in the red zone with that in an orange zone. A further 16% of the routes connect a place in red zone with the one in a green zone. More than 400 routes accounting to more than 90% of the routes in the country connect a place in the red zone. There are only 16 routes connecting places in orange zones while there are 18 routes that connect a place in the green zone and another in orange zone. Only 18 routes connect places both are which in the green zone.
Almost all the major metropolitan cities in India fall in the red zone. This includes Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad. It should be noted that these are the cities that account for a substantial share of domestic air passenger traffic.
At least one of the cities in top 25 flight routes in India lies in Red zone
If domestic air passenger data from January 2019 is considered, it is observed that at least one of the cities- source or destination, or both, in the top 25 routes lie in the red zone. Of these 25 routes, there are four routes that connect a city in red zone to another in green zone (Dabolim in Goa and Guwahati in Assam are the only two cities in green zone).
The list of 25 routes in the descending order of domestic passenger traffic (from January 2019 to January 2020) is shown in the table below.
Top 25 routes account for 40% of the Domestic Air Traffic
Between January 2019 and January 2020, the top ten routes with maximum passenger traffic accounted for 23.3% of total domestic passenger traffic. These frequently travelled 25 routes have accounted for an average of 41.7% of the total domestic passenger traffic in India. The remaining 513 routes account for only 58.3% of the total domestic passenger traffic. That is, an average of 50 Lakh people travelled in these 25 routes out of the total 1.2 crore passengers that travelled every month. The trend in percentage contribution of top ten and top 25 routes to total passenger traffic in the last one year is represented in the chart below.
Resumption of flights may be tricky because of the Red zones
Resuming domestic flight services across only green zones, as is being reported in certain quarters will serve little or no purpose since the traffic in these routes is negligible. As explained previously, more than 90% of the domestic routes connect a place in the red zone. Furthermore, 21 of the top-25 routes connect places both of which are in the red zone.
Resuming flights on these busy routes may pose a challenge of the virus spreading if adequate measures are not taken. The number of passengers per flight might also reduce by a third if social distancing norms are to be followed. Movement of people to the airports, especially in red zones poses another challenze. All this means that the resumption of air traffic has to be carefully thought through.
Resumption of International flight services will take longer
The government, under the Vande Bharat mission is currently evacuating Indians stranded in various countries abroad on special flights. However, resumption of regular international flight services may take longer because of the restrictions and the spread of the virus in various countries.