Ajay Prakash


This year, September 27 was World Tourism Day. On this occasion António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, in his message said – “Tourism has suffered enormously during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 120 million jobs are at risk. The impacts could lead to the loss of between 1.5 and 2.8 per cent of the global GDP. This will particularly affect the most vulnerable countries, including Small Island Developing States, the Least Developed Countries and many African nations, where tourism can represent between 30 and 80 per cent of exports.”

The Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization  Zurab Pololikashvili added – “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a standstill. Our sector is among the hardest hit with millions of jobs at risk.”

Tourism and Aviation industries complement each other. The two are tightly interlinked. In 2019, according to Statista, 4.54 billion passengers travelled by air. World Tourism Organisation recorded 1.5 billion tourist arrivals in the same year. Therefore, tourism alone accounts for thirty per cent (30%) of the total worldwide passenger traffic. If we see the distribution of tourists vis-à-vis the mode of transport they use, then about 870 million people travelled by air (58% of 1.5 Billion).

International Inbound Tourism (2018)
Source: World Tourism Organization ©Statista 2020

The Indian domestic tourism scenario is widely different from the global trends.

Foreign Tourist Arrivals in India

Though the year 2020 started well for the Indian Tourism Industry, the effect of the pandemic was felt from February onwards. On a year-on-year basis (June 2020), the first six months show a decline in foreign tourist traffic by -53.5%.

Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, Agra, India by Ibrahim Rifath on Unsplash

Foreign Tourist Arrivals in India

Though the year 2020 started well for the Indian Tourism Industry, the effect of the pandemic was felt from February onwards. On a year-on-year basis (June 2020), the first six months show a decline in foreign tourist traffic by -53.5%.

Foreign Tourist Arrivals in India (2018 to June 2020)
Source Ministry of Tourism, India

The growth rate last year of 3.5% goes with the global average growth rate. International tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) worldwide grew 4% in 2019 to reach 1.5 billion, based on data reported by destinations around the world. 2019 was another year of strong growth, although slower compared to the exceptional rates of 2017 (+6%) and 2018 (+6%).

India’s share in global tourism (mostly all use air travel) is a measly 1.3%. The World Tourism Organization was expecting a growth of 3%-4% in 2020 as well.   

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India’s Domestic Tourism

Number of domestic tourist visits in India from 2000 to 2018 (in millions)
Data Source: Indian Tourism Department

Domestic tourism has been growing at a steady pace post-2000. The CAGR for the past eighteen years is over twelve per cent (12.58%). In 2018, over 1.85 billion domestic tourist visits were made across India, an increase from the previous year.

Indian tourists mostly undertake journeys by train and road transportation.

Governments Not Doing Enough to Promote Return to Normalcy

Observing the way Governments are trying to regain normalcy, it doesn’t appear that they have any well thought out policy. The actions taken by them are more akin to a fire-fighting situation.

Passenger traffic is down more than 80% on a year-to-year basis. In August this year, IATA revised down its predictions for the recovery of global passenger traffic as the Covid-19 pandemic, continued to wreak havoc on air travel. The passenger traffic will not return to pre-COVID levels until at least 2024, a year later than it predicted a month ago.

Avoiding Quarantine on Arrival – IATA’s goal

It is evident that tourists cannot be quarantined. IATA has been urging governments to avoid quarantine for passengers arriving into the country. Quarantine is the main inhibiting factor for international travel. The Agency wants strict procedures to be implemented so that symptomatic passengers can be identified and restricted from boarding the flight. IATA also want the implementation of ICAO guidelines for mitigating risks in the case where an infected person does travel. Unless the Governments heed to IATA’s request, tourism is bound to remain suspended.

Flights Are Not A ‘Start-Stop’ Game

Ever since International flights started operating from the last week of May, many countries do not appear to have any clear policy. For returning back to normalcy The ‘start-stop’ directives to airlines in no way help the traveller and neither the services providers. On September 30, Lufthansa stopped its flights to India since there is a disagreement on the Bubble agreement with Germany. Both Hong Kong and Dubai governments suspended flights from India for one day since COVID infected passengers were detected. Emirates started its flights to India in May and then stopped flying in June.

This kind of uncertainty has to be curtailed. Governments have to look at bringing air travel and tourism back to normal.

COVID-19 can longer be an excuse to continue with the mess that has been created. Millions of jobs have been lost. It is high time the Governments walk the extra mile to help these people. Normalcy must return.

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Reliance Jio to start In-flight Mobile Services
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Reliance Jio has partnered with several international airlines to provide in-flight mobile services. The company’s partner airlines include Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Euro Wings, Lufthansa, Malindo Air, Biman Bangladesh Airlines, and Alitalia.

Reliance Jio has posted the following information on the Jio website.

  1. Jio Inflight service allows you to stay connected in the flight at above 20,000 feet. One has to recharge with Jio prepaid in-flight communication Packs before boarding the flight.
  2. Customers with active In-flight connectivity (IFC) Packs, will be able to use data, outgoing voice calls and SMS (wherever applicable) as per the pack entitlement quota available.
  3. Incoming calls are not allowed. You will need to disable Wi-Fi connectivity to use mobile data. As a courtesy to fellow passengers, please keep your phone on vibrate.
  4. The network speed of In-Flight connectivity is dependent on the in-flight network operators (OnAir or AeroMobile) and the regulations governing air travel. The in-flight network operators are continually reviewing and innovating their services to provide a better surfing experience for the customers.
  5. No, as per regulation In-Flight Communication (IFC) services are currently not available while you are in Indian Air Space.

    The company offers plans ranging from Rs 499 to Rs 999 with one (1) day validity. None of the plans can be clubbed with the standard International roaming of Jio mobiles. Also, the data bandwidth is minimal; hence the maximum data one can uses with the Rs 999 plan is 1 GB.
Pack PriceRs. 499Rs. 699Rs. 999
Pack DetailsData- 250 MB
Outgoing Calls
100 Mins
SMS- 100
Data- 500 MB
Outgoing Calls
100 Mins
SMS- 100
Date- 1 GB
Outgoing Calls
100 Mins
SMS- 100
Validity1 Day1 Day1 Day
Table 1: Jio In-flight Package details

Target Traveller Segment

The company aims these plans at business travellers who want to remain connected during the flight. Such users will have to moderate the data usage as 1 GB dries up very fast with the data-hungry apps. Also, all background apps running on one’s mobile will need to be closed.

Reliance Jio has become the second Indian company to offer in-flight mobile services. Tata group firm Nelco has already started providing in-flight mobile services in Vistara Airlines on the Delhi-London route.
What is In-flight Mobile Service
The in-flight service allows passengers to use their mobile phones to communicate while travelling on a flight. Onboard communication is routed to a satellite antenna installed on the top of the aircraft. The satellite communication network is connected to the ground mobile network from where the call is switched as a regular mobile call or mobile data service.

Therefore, as is evident, the onboard connectivity provider such as AeroMobile or OnAir would have made inter-connectivity arrangements with mobile service providers of several countries.

Figure 1: How Onboard Networks Work – © AeroMobile

The system is always under the control of the cabin crew and can be regulated. For more information please visit the AeroMobile Website.

Country-Specific Regulations
All countries do not permit onboard mobile services. The most significant opposition to this technology comes from the US. According to Wikipedia, The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently prohibits the use of mobile phones aboard any aircraft in flight. The US cites technical reasons for the denial of permission. Since 2008, the United Kingdom allowed its usage of in-flight mobile technology. Chinese carriers are also entitled to operate the system since 2018.
On 19 January 2018, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) permitted the use of mobile phones and internet access through Wi-Fi onboard all flights operating in Indian airspace. There would be restrictions of a minimum aircraft altitude. In India, passengers are permitted to make mobile phone calls when the aircraft is at an altitude of over 9,800 ft.
The Jio In-flight connect system will operate at an altitude of more than 20,000 feet. These restrictions are imposed by each country mostly to ensure compatibility with their terrestrial mobile networks.
So, for an in-flight system to be work all through your flight, all over-flying countries have to accord individual permission.

Social Resistance to In-flight Phones
Apart from Government policies and technology limitations, there also appears to be resistance from the travelling public. One may not like to be continually disturbed by a mobile-addicted talkative person. Or someone is clattering away on a laptop. When the cabin lights are dimmed, even the fluorescence glow of a monitor screen can be very distracting. As this technology gets further deployed, social norms will have to be defined and enforced.

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Last week, the Minister for Civil Aviation, Hardeep Puri made a statement in the Rajya Sabha regarding the state of the Indian Aviation Industry. The Minister made a statement in writing while answering a series of questions asked by the Member of Parliament Shri Prabhakar Reddy Vemireddy, related to the COVID-19 measures taken by the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

Union Minister for Civil Aviation Hardeep Puri

We will analyse the important information that was provided by the Minister.
Reduction in Employment in The Aviation Sector

There has been a fall in employment across the industry. On average ten percent (10%) of the workforce (17,993) have lost their jobs. The worst affected is the Ground Handling staff at the airports; twenty-two percent lost their employment.

Employment Segment31 March 202031 July 2020Loss of EmployeesPercentage Drop in Employment
Ground Handling37,72029,2548,46622.44%
Cargo Operations9,5558,5381,01710.64%
Figures quoted by Civil Aviation Minister in Rajya Sabha during the Monsoon Session September 2020

These figures given by the Union Minister, may not have included the employees which have been sent on long leaves or reduced remuneration. It may be recalled, the National Carrier Air India, in the last week of July this year, had set up a panel to identify surplus staff. Many employees were then sent on long leave without pay from a duration of six months to two years, which can be extended up to 5 years.

IndiGo Airlines had decided to lay off about 10% of its workforce in July this year, as reported by the Press Trust of India. IndiGo had 23,531 as on March 31, 2020. The airlines had declared that it will not lay-off any pilots.

SpiceJet did not lay-off any employee. Instead, the airline worked out a ‘rotation leave without pay’ mechanism. Salaries of all employees were reduced and, at times, delayed. As is apparent, the most affected segment is the low salary bracket employees like airport workers, cargo, and ground handlers.

Fall in Domestic Air Traffic
Domestic air services were suspended on March 25. Airlines were permitted to resume operations in a graded manner from May 24 onwards.

Figure 1 has two data sets. The first one is the comparison of month-wise passenger traffic between the years 2019 and 2020. Domestic passenger traffic in the first eight months of 2020 showed a decline of fifty-eight percent over 2019.

Figure 1: Domestic Air Traffic Vs COVID-19 Cases
(Data Source: DGCA and PRS Legislative Research)

It may be recalled that domestic passenger traffic had shown a CAGR of thirteen percent (13%) between 2016 and 2019. Though the growth had slowed down towards the second half of 2018, even then between January and December of 2019, the traffic grew at a modest 3.74%. The passenger traffic slowdown in 2019 was attributed to the slowdown of the Indian economy. It may be recalled that in 2018, IATA had forecast that India will be the third-largest aviation market by 2024 after the US and China.
The effect of COVID-19 on travelers began in March itself. The Government suspended all flights when the number of COVID-19 case detections was in the infancy, barely over one thousand. When the flights resumed in May, the cases were still below the 200,000 thousand marks.
The government has been relaxing the COVID-19 restrictions to support the resumption of domestic air services. The Ministry of Civil Aviation in its order dated August 27, made relaxations for serving in-flight meals and announced a series of directives for sanitizing the aircraft after every flight.
Similarly, the Ministry of Home Affairs, in its order dated August 29 (Unlock 4.0) removed all restrictions of traveling within the country. However, people are still reluctant to fly as the pandemic is far from contained. The number of COVID-19 cases stands over 56 Lakhs now.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic air services have been restarted in a calibrated manner. Initially, only one third (33%) of the summer schedule 2020 was allowed to be operated which was subsequently increased to 45% on 26 Jun 2020 and then to 60% on 02 Sep 2020.

Also read: Kozhikode Air India Crash: Where is the Preliminary Report of the Crash of Flight IX-1344?

Revenue Shortfalls
The Minister also informed that there were severe revenue shortfalls in the first quarter of the FY 2020-21.
The revenue of Indian carriers reduced from Rs 25,517 crore during April-June 2019 to Rs 3,651 crore during April-June 2020 – a drop of 85.7%
Besides, the revenue of airport operators has reduced from Rs 5,745 crore during April-June 2019 to Rs 894 crore during April-June 2020 – a drop of 84.4%.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation has been coping with operational issues especially the Vande Bharat Missions and the Bubble Agreements. For the moment there is very little to cheer about. Flyers will be reluctant to travel unless the pandemic shows signs of receding. The airlines are cash strapped and are fighting a battle of survival. The Government has to step up efforts to help the airlines and travellers.

On August 7, Air India Express flight IX-1344 from Dubai to Kozhikode (Calicut), India suffered a runway excursion while landing at the airport. There were one hundred and eighty-four (184) passengers and six crew members on board. Eighteen (18) casualties were reported which included both Pilots of the ill-fated plane. The pilot-in-command was Captain Deepak Sathe, and his co-pilot was Akhilesh Kumar. Six weeks have passed and there is no further news of the accident.

The Accident

The Air India Express, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Air India, has a fleet of twenty-five (25) B-737-800 aircraft. The aircraft involved in the accident was registered in India as VT-AXH, a thirteen (13) year old Boeing 737-800 aircraft running on two CFMI CFM56-7B27 engines. While landing on runway 10 (One Zero) from the east, the B737 overshot the runway and broke into two as it slid down into a valley. The Pilot had circled the airport twice before attempting to land in heavy rain.

The Air India Express Boeing 737-8HJ involved in the accident – Photo: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikipedia

According to Outlook Web Media, the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) was recovered the very next day. The Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) was also recovered later in the day on August 8 cutting by through the floor panels.

Crash Investigations – ICAO

The International Civil Aviation Organisation provides comprehensive investigation guidelines related to aircraft accidents. This is documented as Annexure 13 Aircraft Accident and Incident Investigation of ICAO.

As per these guidelines, multiple International Agencies are involved in the investigation, more notably –

a)         The State of Registry of the Aircraft (India, DGCA)

b)         The State of the Operator (India, Air India)

c)         The State of Occurrence (Kerala State, Government of India)

d)         State of Design (the USA through Boeing Company)

e)         State of Manufacturer (the USA through National Transport Safety Board)

f)          ICAO – when the aircraft mass is above 2250 kg. The B737-800 weight is between 41,000 kg to 79,000 kg.

Therefore, ICAO is involved in the investigation. Further, clause 4.1 states that “The State of Occurrence shall forward a notification of an accident or serious incident with a minimum of delay and by the most suitable and quickest means available to them.”

These guidelines were followed, and Ministry of Civil aviation confirmed informing NTSB, Boeing and ICAO of the incident. Confirming the development, AAIB said, “NTSB has appointed Accredited Representative and Technical Advisors to assist in the investigation as per ICAO Annex 13 protocol. The investigating team is coordinating with the Accredited Representative/Technical Advisers appointed by NTSB. As and when the investigating team requires any assistance, the same will be intimated to them.”

Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau

In accordance with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Standards and Recommended Practices and to provide independence of investigation function from the regulatory function, Government of India set up the Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau. This Bureau came into operations with effect from July 5, 2012.

By August 20 the AAIB had appointed a five-member team headed by Captain SS Chahar to probe the accident. Other team members include operations expert Ved Prakash, senior aircraft maintenance engineer Mukul Bharadwaj, aviation medicine expert Group Captain (Dr) YS Dahiya and AAIB deputy director Jasbir Singh Largha. According to Aurobindo Handa, director-general of AAIB, the team was instructed to complete the investigation and submit the report in five months.

Remains of the Air India Express flight IX 1344 that crashed at Kozhikode Airport on August 7, 2020  | Photo Credit: Sakeer Hussain (The Hindu)

Preliminary Report Delayed

As per clause 7.4 of Annexure 13 related to the timeline for dispatch (of the preliminary report) –

“The Preliminary Report shall be sent by facsimile, e-mail, or airmail within thirty days of the date of the accident unless the Accident/Incident Data Report has been sent by that time. When matters directly affecting safety are involved, it shall be sent as soon as the information is available and by the most suitable and quickest means available.”

It is well past the thirty-day limit, and we have not yet heard of the preliminary report from AAIB.

It may be recalled that on May 22, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight PK303 crashed into a residential area and burst into flames while attempting to land at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport. Pakistan’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Board (AAIB) released the preliminary report about the crash of the flight on June 24. The contents of the cockpit voice recorder were also placed in the public domain.

The silence on the part of DGCA and the Ministry of Civil Aviation is quite surprising. The families of the 18 people who lost their lives have a right to know what happened on that fateful evening. It is more than six weeks and not a single statement from the authorities. Can AAIB explain this delay?