Airlines need a supportive policy environment to return to the skies
The limited resumption of air travel planned from Monday is a sign that lockdowns are yielding to the imperative (all-important) of restarting the economy. Complete freedom to travel outside containment zones, accompanied by the scaling up of all public transport modes, is critical to economic revival. Aviation of course is a sector that has been gravely wounded by the pandemic. After zero revenues for two months, airlines need a supportive policy environment to resume business. And as we now know that masks, frequent use of sanitisers and other disinfection measures offer a reasonable measure of protection, it’s time that fear psychosis gives way to a ‘new normal’.
Recall that not long ago domestic air travel could even boast of competitiveness with rail fares, a tribute to the distance travelled by India and private airlines from the days of public sector monopoly (the exclusive possession or control of the supply of or trade in a commodity or service). While the lockdown hit almost everyone, contact industries like aviation, hospitality, malls and multiplexes are expected to keep suffering low footfalls even after reopening. Most airlines are heavily in debt and want a helping hand from the government. Stipulating (specify) price range caps on air fares in such an environment will do more harm than good – the spectre of monopolies returning after most firms become unprofitable and shut down is grim. Airlines are still figuring out a new business model in the changed scenario and could do without micromanagement and complicated price regulations.
When economic activity picks up air fares are expected to soar across the world but the job of moderating them should be left to market dynamics. Even-handed regulation would recognise these global trends and the debt woes of airlines. Various state governments’ quarantine procedures also need to sync up. But social distancing norms followed by airports and airlines and their outcomes will have multi-sectoral implications. In time other closed air-conditioned spaces like metros, malls and multiplexes could replicate the same practices to reopen.