India is flying. Again. Some would say finally. Others are not so chuffed, worrying as they are about people dashing from Green to Red zones and vice versa. Yes there is a risk but is the risk greater than the advantages of getting back to business? This has always been the key issue - let people out or contain the virus? One kills the economy and the other, people. Each in turn affects the other. So someone had to decide, and the government did.
Why it so suddenly changed its mind on opening up aviation is difficult to answer, but The Indian Express reported that airlines had threatened to close down and sack millions of people. That the government was not willing to risk. It's one thing to watch migrants struggling to get home, quite another to see pilots and cabin crew jobless. They are the middle class created in the last thirty years, they are the base of the party in power.
The power of the airlines is perhaps best reflected in the dropping of the "vacant middle seat" as it was not economically viable, it would have sent fares shooting sky high. There may be some logic to this, but it does raise a number of issues. First, in a market economy, should the government control fares? If fares are high, people may not travel as much and airlines will eventually reduce them. Second, the largest contributor to fares is the government's tax on aviation fuel. That is not being cut; one week of Nirmala Sitharaman's TV outings made it clear that the government isn't giving away any money, much less cutting revenue sources. So why blame the airlines?
Third, and perhaps most contradictory, the government argues that being in close quarters for two-and-a-half hours is not likely to spread Covid 19 among those travelling because anyone who is travelling will have the good sense not to travel if they aren't well. Given that the virus takes upto seven or more days to show up, how would passengers know if they had the coronavirus or not, and whether or not they should fly?
This logic leaves one completely confused. When broken down, it suggests that everything else we are doing to contain the virus is a waste of time.
For example, if sharing an armrest with your sweaty neighbour and almost certainly inhaling their breathe (since you are faces are 18 inches apart) is fine, why, for God's sake, does flying require:
A) Going to the airport 2 hours before the flight to ensure social distancing and give time for formalities.
B) Entering by airline-designated gates
C) Standing 2 metres apart for baggage drop, security
D) Alternate seats blocked outside the boarding gate
It seems to suggest that we need social distance all the way to the point of where all 200 passengers are shovelled into a large cigar and locked up for hours. Maybe it's saying we are reducing the risk for most of the way except the most important part when you must huddle together, as airline profitability dictates.
Perhaps people will have better sense and wait and book only on flights that seem reasonably empty so that they can get the extra space. They can also buy a PPE suit, which will be available at cost price at the airport, and hope that keeps the virus away. Or, like President Donald Trump, pop some hydrochloroquine tablets and hope for the best.
And while travelling by air may not concern many of us at the moment, the contradiction in policy for air travel with the general guidelines for the lockdown are shocking.
We are saying packed planes are fine but in a shop customers must be six feet apart. Customers are only in a shop for 15 minutes. That's risky but three hours on a plane isn't?
Only 20 people can attend a funeral. Funerals are held in open areas, planes are enclosed, so what's the risk?
Only 50 people are allowed to attend weddings. Strange, given that all those attending know each other and would be more likely to know if anyone was "ill" than co-passengers on a flight.
Restaurants remain shut, even though most people don't spend more than an hour or so in them.
Inviting half a dozen people home for a meal would destroy social distancing barriers
Either scrap all these guidelines under which the public can be prosecuted or clearly tell airline passengers that unless you travel in a PPE suit, there are higher chances of your catching the infection than if you stayed at home and only went shopping or went to office, because we have not tested any of your co-passengers. Let the flying public be clear about the risks involved.
(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.