There have been a lot of speculations about what the impact of the lockdown and the pandemic has been on the aviation industry. With losses that are mounting to billions and the new norms making it even harder for revival, we thought of ‘clearing the air’, once and for all. While in conversation with Mr. Vinod Kannan, CCO, Vistara, we got a peek into what the new norm of flying will be and normalcy, however may be distant, but is achievable eventually.
1. After two months of lockdown flights have finally started flying from May 25. How has the demand been so far? Because of the pent-up demand, are we seeing flights running in full capacity?
We’re back in the skies. So it’s good news. But, there are two parts to this so firstly of course, even when we resume flights, there is a directive that we can only operate as per a certain capacity. So, we could only operate about a third of flights, which we have planned. Plus there were further restrictions because some airports or some states wanted to curtail it further based on the number of cases. So if you look at it objectively, I think we have operating about twenty to 20-25% of what we would normally operate. That would be capacity wise in terms of number of flights.
Demand has been there. But there are some findings and observations. A lot of traffic is directional. So you find a lot of people, for example, leaving Mumbai to go to other parts of India. But there are very few people going into Mumbai because as you might know there are various rules regarding quarantines and institutional quarantine and so on. Similarly for Bengaluru, we find a lot of travel out rather than in. In certain sectors, we’ve been able to command very high load factors. In fact, on the Delhi- Kolkata route, we updated our flights to the 787, which is the biggest aircraft we have and the only 787- 9 in the country. So it’s been heartening in those regards. But of course overall, if you look at it industry wise, I think we’re doing still 50 to 60% load factors.
“If you look at it industry wise, I think we’re doing still 50 to 60% load factors”
2. Flights have been given permission to run in full capacity at this point of time and the middle seat may not necessarily be left empty. What are your thoughts on that?
This is an issue which has been debated ad nauseam. Optically blocking the middle seat is something that provides some visual relief to customers and assurances. But let me also state very clearly that if you look at the way airlines operate and especially Vistara, there’s a lot of safeguards and measures in place even before the passengers even come to the airport and board the aircraft.
We give out safety kits to each and every passenger with a mask, with a face shield, sanitizers and everyone is mandated to wear a mask on the flight. We are not serving any food. Although we’d love to. I mean, we are known for our food and beverage but we’ve taken the decision in accordance with the guidelines that there’ll be no meals because there’s a higher chance of contamination. Yes, the risk is not going to be zero; but with these measures, the requirement of blocking the middle seat probably goes away from our actual results perspective.
3. Generating demand in the coming months is going to be quite a bit of a challenge. Are there any initiatives that you are planning to take in terms of marketing or putting the message across about the safety measures that you just mentioned?
We just launched a campaign, which says ‘Let’s make flying feel safe again’, because that’s exactly what it is. What we’ve outlined is, what we as an airline are doing right from enabling web check-in, making sure that it is contactless, there is as minimal human interaction as possible, making sure that the aircraft disinfected and sanitized as well; and also cleaning of all contact surfaces. We are also providing PPEs kits to our crew that dons the aubergine colors and the uniform of Vistara, and proudly do so. Now, they are also doing that but also have a protective lap gown or a suit above that. They have been trained well in what needs to be done.
“What we as an airline are doing right from enabling web check-in, making sure that it is contactless, there is as minimal human interaction as possible, making sure that the aircraft disinfected and sanitized as well”
We are also asking the customers to do their part because it takes two to tango. So we need customers to make sure that they come to the airport only if they are fit and not from a containment zone. We request our customers to not move around also and thankfully for the last week at least we’ve seen that all of them have been followed very well.
4. While we are taking safety measures against Covid what happens to the regular safety measures in the airline be the oxygen masks and all of that is that is the gear going to be a hindrance in terms of the regular airline safety measures?
Aviation is one of the most regulated and safety-conscious industries. So that’s not changed and there’s no compromise on that. In fact, there are procedures involving the DGCA and the ministry to make sure that the safety is not compromised. So all the measures seen now are an additional layer of protection over the basic safety norms that we already have right now.
5. It is said that the airport authority is going to do medical check-ups. Is the airline also additionally doing anything in terms of thermal screening or any other tests to be done while boarding.
When the passenger enters the airport terminal building, there is a temperature screening. In addition to that, we’ve been doing it for the passengers who board the aircraft. We are also doing a secondary temperature check to make sure that no asymptomatic passengers are boarding.
6. The aviation industry contributes a lot to the overall GDP of India, but IATA recently said, the aviation industry is under tremendous stress with loss of over $11 billion dollars and also 47% of air traffic reduction, leading to a job loss of as much as three million. So has there been any economic relief that has been announced by the government?
There are two parts to this. The first part in terms of what the government has come up with in terms of packages. And when the Finance Minister came up with the overall package, there were some items which were relevant to aviation. For example, reducing the flight time between points and so on but I believe there’s more that can be done. All airlines, including aviation bodies have been in constant touch with the ministry to see whether there’s more measures that can be put in place. I mean it could be credit facilities, it could be an introduction of the GST on Aviation Turbine Fuel (AFT). But a lot of discussions are still in place.
The second aspect is that the aviation industry, through a multiplier effect, has a huge impact on the economy or hospitality, in general. But on the job side or on the staffing side, I think at least I can speak for Vistara, that we have minimal impact on the staff. There’s no job losses. We try and maintain and retain as many jobs.
“We have minimal impact on the staff. There’s no job losses. We try and maintain and retain as many jobs”
We did have to make some remuneration changes. So about 30% of us have had to take a shorter work week or a shorter work month, which translates into some cost reduction as well. But 70% of our staff which is the front liners, people who are at the lowest in combat. We managed to insulate them thus far.
7. The government has put a cap in terms of the airfare. So is that also hurting the business in any way?
Certain sectors where the flights are full and we could have been given independence and freedom, to be able to match demand and supply. Having said that, I know why the government has come up with the cap. I think there’s a rationale to it as well. We don’t want airlines to price below cost. We also don’t want airlines to price too high because there are customers who are affected in different parts of the country who may not be able to afford it. I would have said that it’s best if we can operate on an independent basis. Now that we know that there’s a rationale behind why the band has been put into effect. But those are the rules of the game and we have to abide by that.
8. When will we see the aviation industry bouncing back to normalcy or what will it take for the aviation business to thrive?
The easiest and the simplest answer which is also the toughest actually to get through, is confidence. So as a traveler as a passenger, I think once the passenger gains confidence to say. Airline travel is still the safest form of travel between point A and B. The airlines are putting in a lot of efforts to mitigate the risks and the airlines remain committed to making sure that there’s minimal infection and spread. I think once that message gets through and I think it is getting through, the possibility of us being able to fulfill our flights increases immediately and that is in fact the best way to make airlines more healthy.
The second aspect I would say is related to that confidence not just in the airlines but also in the various measures that will be taken at the destination point. Different states have different terms of what happens when you arrive at an airport. So depending on what mandates and guidelines which the states come up with, I think that will also have a big impact on the passengers minds because this might be something that you don’t want unless you’re going back home to be reunited with your loved ones in which case you are you will gladly accept some of these conditions, but otherwise when it comes to leisure or business travel you can imagine how tough it is.
9. What kind of travellers are you seeing right now? Also, what’s the busiest sector for Vistara right now and pre-Covid?
It’s significantly people who are stuck in different parts of the country and are traveling back home. There’s also a very heartwarming story of a father who came to pick up his two, who were born a few months ago in Delhi and he finally managed to fly them back to Kolkata. There are a lot of such cases that we are glad as an airline to facilitate this. We have also seen that there has been a general increase to the Eastern part of the country. So I suppose these are people who are working in the Metros, whether it’s in Delhi Mumbai Bangalore and are now heading back.
“We have also seen that there has been a general increase to the Eastern part of the country. So I suppose these are people who are working in the Metros, whether it’s in Delhi Mumbai Bangalore and are now heading back.”
10. What about international flights?
Well, I’m hoping for the best and I’m hoping to see when that resumes. For now, at least I think the month of June has been ruled out. So the latest circular from the ministry says that we have to wait at least until the 1st of July and the decision is still not taken. There is a huge demand for that as well. I mean there are customers and companies which are getting in touch with us for charter flights because there are people stuck in different parts of the world. To be fair, international travel will take some time because it’s a function of the other party.
11. Curly Tales is followed by a lot of travel enthusiasts. Is there any message you would like to share because they are eagerly waiting to travel and I mean waiting for things to get back to normal.
So I would like to tell all the followers of Curly Tales, please get on a flight if that’s what you want to do. I know that you have your own decisions to make but I can safely and categorically state that Vistara will leave no stone unturned to make sure that your travel and your journey is safe. It’s fun and it’s comfortable given the current times, the interaction from our crew might be limited, but we will make sure that the same warmth exudes when you come on board.
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