Airlines brace for turbulence amid wave of new travel bans

The revival of international flight operations from India is expected to be further delayed, with several countries imposing restrictions on travel to and from the country in a bid to contain the spread of the virus.

The US, France, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Oman have put in place restrictions, while others like the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the UK, New Zealand have banned flights from and to India.

Major Indian airlines like Air India and IndiGo, which have a considerable international network, now expect a delay in recovery of international flights, which typically bring in higher yields than domestic flights.

Vistara, a joint venture between Singapore Airlines and Tata Sons, that had planned to start direct long-haul flights to the US, is now bracing for a delay in the launch.

“The recent spike in covid cases in India, and resulting restrictions imposed by several major economies on travel to and from India, has delayed Vistara’s long-haul plans by at least a couple of quarters,” said a person with direct knowledge of the matter, who didn’t want to be named.

“When things get normalized, people would want to fly directly to long-haul destinations in North America, Europe and elsewhere and not through a hub in the Middle East as they would want to minimize their exposure to the virus. This would be a great opportunity to start direct long-haul flights,” the person added.

Mint had in March reported that Vistara is in talks with Boeing Co. to modify the 787-9 Dreamliner jets it is set to induct over the next two years by adding a resting room for crew, allowing the airline to mount direct long-haul flights to the US and other countries, said two people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Meanwhile, Air India, which operates several long-haul flights across the globe, is bracing for an impact from restrictions imposed by countries.

“The second wave has delayed the recovery in international travel by at least three to four months. If things worsen, more countries could impose restrictions on flights to and from India,” said a senior Air India official, who too spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“With domestic traffic also being impacted by the surging number of cases, a strong recovery seen in domestic passenger traffic since May last year is also fizzling out,” the official said, adding that the sector would need policy intervention and support from the government to see through the crisis.

Rating agency ICRA Ltd expects domestic air traffic to reach pre-covid levels by fiscal year 2023, while international air traffic will hit pre-covid normalcy only by FY24 because of sluggish demand from leisure and business travellers and a surge in new variants of the coronavirus.

“ICRA has always maintained that the impact of the pandemic will last longer on international travel than on domestic travel. Scheduled international operations are yet to start. However, the civil aviation ministry has permitted international operations under the Vande Bharat Mission and air transport bubbles arrangement,” said Kinjal Shah, vice-president at ICRA.

“The same is also expected to be impacted as consumers avoid non-essential travel and also as countries again start restrictions for travel to and from India due to the second wave of the pandemic. This will pose a challenge for the recovery in international travel,” Shah added.

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