15 stories of Indian aviation that kept the world hooked in 2020

One could argue that 2020 was the worst year in the history of Indian aviation, but there were several silver linings too

15 stories of Indian aviation that kept the world hooked in 2020
2020 was an eventful year for Indian aviation. Image courtesy: Twitter/@DelhiAirport, Facebook/Air India, Facebook/Vistara and Twitter/@GujaratTourism

The year 2020 may be viewed as the worst in the history of Indian aviation when the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc. Jobs were lost, salaries were cut, revenues plummeted, demand crashed and overall, business suffered an unprecedented hit. This was true of the related sectors like tourism and hospitality as well. However, there have been silver linings behind dark clouds. 

The Indian aviation sector, under the able guidance of the government, has been able to stage a slow but firm recovery. India launched a mega repatriation mission and a cargo transportation mission.

There have been some positive developments like the launching of seaplanes, a new regional carrier and those around the Jewar airport. The Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik (UDAN) scheme was expanded and the Air India disinvestment and Jet Airways revival showed signs of getting off the ground. An air crash around the middle of the year, however, acted as a dampener.  

Here are 15 stories that hogged the headlines in 2020: 

1. Covid-crash and gradual recovery

The Indian aviation sector, which was one of the fastest-growing markets in the world, was dealt a rude shock by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Indian aviation industry had recorded 50 consecutive months of double-digit growth in December 2018, according to a Financial Express report. It had also begun to carry more people annually (~140 million) over longer distances at comparable or lower prices than the AC coaches of the Indian Railways (~130 million). There were five back-to-back years of double-digit growth from 2014-15 to 2018-19, according to The Deccan Herald. 

The Indian aviation sector has shown signs of recovery from the Covid crash. Image courtesy: Twitter/@DelhiAirport

India contributed 5.9% to the global growth in air passenger traffic between 2009 and 2019, making it the third-biggest contributor. According to Oxford Economic analysis, the Indian aviation sector directly contributed 3,90,000 jobs and indirectly supported more than 5,70,000 jobs across various supply chains. Foreign tourists flying into India helped in the creation of an additional 6.2 million jobs. Overall, India's GDP had been boosted by a significant $35 billion annually by the aviation sector. 

This high-flying sector was brought to a grinding halt when the government imposed a ban on scheduled commercial international air travel on March 23, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which had already started to infect thousands across the world. This was followed by a stringent nationwide lockdown on March 25, as a result of which, domestic air travel was suspended as well. 

Also read: Air India employees believe 'nobody can run airline better', prepare takeover bid

The impact was profound. Leading aviation consultancy agency CAPA India predicted in June that the full-year domestic traffic would be towards the lower end of the 55-70 million it had forecast for FY21 earlier. It also predicted that the workforce employed in Indian aviation would reduce by at least 30%. Rating agency ICRA estimated that the Indian aviation industry would have a net loss of Rs 210 billion in FY21, IANS reported. The industry's debt, excluding lease liabilities, is expected to rise to Rs 500 billion over FY21-22.  

The Airports Authority of India (AAI) witnessed a 92% fall in revenue during April-June 2020 over the corresponding period a year ago, according to a government reply in Parliament. Indian airlines, airport operators and national carrier Air India reported losses of 86%, 84% and 78% respectively during April-June 2020 over the same period in 2019. Ground-handling agencies were the worst-hit in terms of employment reduction, followed by cargo operators, according to a Moneycontrol report. 

Domestic flights were resumed from May 25 after a 2-month gap. Image courtesy: Twitter/@amrapali_p

Steep pay cuts and leaves without pay necessitated by the Covid-induced business downturn made life difficult for aviation staff. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated that Indian aviation and linked sectors would see more than 30 lakh job losses in 2020, according to a Times of India report in July. 

The recovery has been slow but steady. Domestic air travel was resumed on May 25 in a calibrated manner and with elaborate Covid-19 safety protocols in place. Airlines were allowed to operate at only 33% capacity after factoring in social distancing norms, though according to a Business Today report in June, the airlines were operating at only 25% capacity. The government raised the capacity limit to 45% by the end of June and to 60% in September. As domestic traffic surged, the government in November permitted airlines to hike capacity to 70%. It was further increased in December to 80% of the pre-Covid levels.

On May 31, or a week after the domestic aviation sector was reopened, there were just 1,003 flight movements and 89,271 footfalls at the Indian airports. On January 5, total flight movements stood at 4,103 and total footfall at 4,23,827, according to Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri. Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) data point out that 63.54 lakh domestic passengers travelled in November, up 20.54% from 52.71 lakh in October. The November figure was an 82.9% rise over the 19.84 lakh passenger movement registered in June, which was the first month after air services were resumed. 

Also read -- Covid-19: Vistara, IndiGo among 'safest' airlines, but real picture starkly different

If compared to the 2019 figures, however, the picture is not pretty. During January-November 2020, 556.84 lakh passengers were carried by the Indian airlines as against 1,311.54 lakh in the corresponding period of the previous year. A total of 1.29 crore passengers were flown by domestic airlines in November 2019, which is more than double the November 2020 figure. However, aviation experts say that the data of 2020 cannot really be compared with that of the previous year as the Covid-19 pandemic completely changed the dynamics of the game.

Passengers at the Delhi airport. Image courtesy: Twitter/@DelhiAirport

What is reassuring though is that the fundamentals of the Indian aviation sector has been strong and there have been several steps taken to mitigate the Covid losses. For instance, RCS-UDAN flights were allowed without too many restrictions, cargo operations were encouraged, air bubbles were created with numerous countries aiming at some degree of international travel, goods and services tax (GST) rate on domestic maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) services was cut to 5%, and so on. 

The travel ban on UK flights that was imposed on December 21 in view of the detection of a new and more infectious strain of the coronavirus in that country further affected India's international air traffic. Scheduled commercial international air travel continues to be banned in India.

2. Vande Bharat Mission, air bubbles and Lifeline Udan 

As the Covid-19 pandemic took frightening proportions, countries the world over went under lockdowns and imposed travel bans. As the clamour grew among the Indians stranded in foreign lands and staring at fast vanishing livelihoods to return home and be with their families in these difficult times, the government came up with a mega repatriation plan called the Vande Bharat Mission in early May.  

In the first phase of the mission, nearly 15,000 Indians were planned to be brought back in a week, mainly from the Gulf countries. Not only that, over two lakh Indians expressed their desire to be repatriated. The Vande Bharat Mission was envisaged as the world's biggest evacuation exercise ever. The mission is in its ninth phase currently and till January 5, 2021, the Air India Group had operated 13,178 VBM flights, carrying a total of 10,67,115 inbound and 6,89,106 outbound passengers. Private carriers have also richly contributed.  

A Vande Bharat Mission flight of Air India from Sydney, Australia. Image courtesy: Twitter/@cgisydney 

Since February, the national carrier had been taking the lead to evacuate and bring back stricken Indian and foreign nationals in some of the worst Covid-19 hotspot countries of the world, including China, from where the virus had originated. It had also been providing safe flight for foreigners stranded in India to their native places. 

Air India planes brought back close to 1,500 Indian nationals and some foreigners from places like Wuhan in China (the coronavirus epicentre), Milan and Rome in Italy and even from a quarantined ship docked off the coast of Japan's Yokohama. Air India flights also carried evacuees from Iran to quarantine facilities in India.

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Air India has also been the linchpin of the government's Lifeline Udan project, which was launched on March 26, to transport medical cargo and other essential supplies to the remotest corners of the country, with special focus on the Northeast, island territories and hill states, as the government imposed a strict lockdown and suspended all scheduled passenger flights to break the Covid-19 infection chain. Critical items were also transported between India and other countries during this time of the pandemic. Private carriers, Pawan Hans, Indian Air Force (IAF) and dedicated cargo operator Blue Dart also lent significant support.

Air India had played a pivotal role in the Lifeline Udan mission. Image courtesy: Lifeline Udan

The air bubble agreements were aimed at restarting international air travel when regular flights stand suspended in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. Under them, carriers of partner countries can take passengers both ways and enjoy reciprocal rights. India currently has air bubble pacts with 24 countries -- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, Maldives, Nepal, Oman, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Canada, US, France, Germany, UK, Netherlands, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania.   

3. UDAN 4.0 

Expanding connectivity to the remote and treacherous terrains of the hilly regions of India, the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) added 78 new routes under the fourth round of the regional connectivity scheme — UDAN. 

Source: Twitter/@HardeepSPuri

According to the ministry officials, the Northeast region, hilly states and islands were given priority in the approval process for the new routes. The list of approved routes included 29 served, eight unserved (including two heliports and one water aerodrome), and two underserved airports.

4. Air India sale

The cash-strapped national carrier was put on sale on January 27, after two failed attempts -- one in 2000 and the other in 2018. The government came up with a sweetened deal this time around, offering to give up management control and offload its entire stake in Air India and its low-cost arm Air India Express along with its 50% stake in the ground-handling unit AISATS. 

According to the expression of interest (EoI) floated by Department of Investment and Public Asset Management (DIPAM) in January, the buyer would have to absorb Rs 23,286.5 crore, or around one-third of the airline's total debt, while the rest would be transferred to the Air India Assets Holding Ltd (AIAHL) -- a special purpose vehicle.

The minimum net worth criterion for potential bidders was also relaxed to Rs 3,500 crore from Rs 5,000 crore in 2018.

An Air India Dreamliner. Image courtesy: Facebook/Air India

Owing to Covid-induced uncertainties, the initial deadline of March 17 for receiving preliminary bids was pushed first to June 30, then to August 31, then again to October 30 and finally to December 14. Diluting the deal terms even further, the government allowed bidding on the enterprise value of the carrier instead of the equity value, giving the bidders the option to decide on how much debt they want to absorb and the cost they would pay for the carrier.

According to DIPAM Secretary Tuhin Kanta Pandey "multiple expressions of interest" were received for Air India on December 14. Reportedly, the Tata group is involved and is using AirAsia India as the vehicle. A consortium of over 200 Air India employees led by the airline's commercial director Meenakshi Mallik is also participating in the bidding and is supported by a fund based in Seychelles. US-based firm Interups Inc pulled out citing legal hurdles, according to a report in simpleflying.com. 

The strategic sale has now been delayed further with the government not announcing the names of the shortlisted bidders on January 5, as was decided earlier. "Post completion of the evaluation of the EOls received, the Transaction Advisor will directly intimate the Qualified Interested Bidders (QIB) in relation to their qualification and the next steps for the Proposed Transaction," DIPAM said in the 11th corrigendum to its invitation for EoI for Air India on December 30.

5. Pawan Hans sale

In December, the government sought fresh bids for another prominent PSU aviation company -- Pawan Hans. The government also plans to transfer management control in the company. 

Will the government be third time lucky in selling Pawan Hans? Image courtesy: Twitter/@PawanHansLtd 

Pawan Hans is India’s leading helicopter company (with the largest fleet size) engaged in providing services for various purposes such as offshore operations, inter-island transportation, connecting inaccessible areas, pipeline surveillance, casualty and rescue work, charter services, VIP transportation, services under Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) and various other customised services. It is a miniratna company. 

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The deadline for the submission of EoIs was fixed at January 19, 2021, and the shortlisted bidders are to be notified by February 17, 2021. The government had already made two unsuccessful attempts to sell Pawan Hans. 

6. Air India Express crash

Air India Express flight 1344, a Boeing 737 flying from Dubai International Airport to Calicut International Airport on VBM duty, suffered a runway excursion upon landing on August 7. 

The pilots had already aborted two landing attempts because of heavy rain and tailwind. On the third attempt, the plane touched down, but skidded off the edge of the tabletop runway and fell into a 50 feet valley. The aircraft broke into two pieces as a result of the crash.

Air India Express Flight 1344 after the crash. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Nandishwaran.g.1910151

A tabletop runway is located on top of a plateau or hillock with one of both ends adjacent to a steep precipice which drops into a deep valley. These runways create an optical illusion of being at the same level as the plains below and are a real challenge for pilots.  

Both pilots and 19 passengers of the ill-fated flight were killed in the accident.

This was India's biggest air disaster since 2010 when also an Air India Express plane and a tabletop runway were involved. The plane fell off a cliff in Mangalore on May 22, 2010, and caught fire, killing 158 of the 166 people onboard.

7. Baby born onboard

On October 7, pictures and celebratory videos of a newborn went viral on social media after he was prematurely delivered by her mother mid-air on an IndiGo Delhi-Bengaluru flight.

The birth mid-air provided some cheer for the Indian aviation sector battling Covid woes. Image acquired by Plane Vanilla 

The miraculous mid-air delivery is quite a rare incident as the less-than-36-weeks pregnant woman experienced labour pain in the two-hour flight. Incidentally, there were two doctors aboard, who with the help of the airline crew, helped the woman in delivering the baby boy. IndiGo has offered a lifetime supply of free tickets for the child.  

8. Jet Airways 2.0

After months of arduous negotiations, the lenders of the airline led by State Bank of India (SBI) in October accepted a Rs 1,000-crore bid by a consortium comprising London-based Kalrock Capital and Dubai-based entrepreneur Murari Lal Jalan to resuscitate the bankrupt airline.

Also read: Jet Airways could return in summer of 2021, but glory days difficult to recreate

The airline at its peak was one of the biggest in India and one of the most successful in terms of international operations. It had suspended operations in April 2019. Jet Airways 2.0 could be back in the sky as a full-service carrier in the summer of 2021, according to a report.

There is strong hope that Jet Airways will fly again. Image courtesy: Twitter/@BoeingAirplanes 

According to a report in Times Now, the Kalrock-Jalan consortium is ready to pump Rs 1,000 crore into Jet Airways over the next five years. It is also willing to furnish collateral as per the resolution plan.  

9. Refunds dispute

The issue of refunds had caused a lot of controversy in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The aviation sector, which had been pummelled by the pandemic-induced travel bans, feared that refunds would only add to their mountain of losses. So they were initially not too keen on refunds, necessitated by cancellations as a result of repeated lockdown extensions. They had offered credit shells instead, causing the government and the Supreme Court to intervene.

Source: IndiGo/livefromalounge.com

Even after months of tussle between the airlines and customers, the refund for tickets cancelled during the lockdown remained a bone of contention. On one hand, the government and airlines claimed that they had cleared maximum refunds. On the other, air passengers remained confused over the delay and use of credit shells.  

10. Vistara Dreamliner

Vistara, a joint venture between the Tata group and Singapore Airlines, unveiled India's first Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner in March. This 14,000 km range wide-body aircraft was acquired keeping in view Vistara's aim to expand into the long-haul market. It was the first of the six Dreamliners Vistara plans to buy. 

The aircraft has a 299-seater cabin, with business (in 1+2+1 configuration), premium economy (in 2+3+2 configuration) and economy (in 3+3+3 configuration) classes. The premium economy class is the first in India. The aircraft was planned to be the first in India to offer in-flight wifi. It comes with a host of features like human-centric lighting, six-way headrest, calf and footrest, 12-18 inch personal entertainment screens, AC and USB power outlets, 31-44 inch seat pitch and a full flatbed with 76-inch length in the business class.  

The showpiece Dreamliner will help Vistara reach far and wide. Image courtesy: Twitter/@airvistara   

Vistara operated the maiden commercial flight of the Dreamliner from Delhi to Kolkata in May. A second Dreamliner joined the Vistara fleet in August, according to a report in simpleflying.com. The Dreamliner allowed the full-service carrier to expand to the UK with non-stop flights between Delhi and London. Vistara had planned similar special flights to Paris (France) and Frankfurt (Germany) too. It had also aimed to start non-stop flights between Mumbai to London from January 2021. 

11. Flybig

This is Indian aviation's newest kid on the block. It launched in a year when many airlines across the world folded their wings in the face of the Covid-19 crisis. In December, the new regional carrier made a splash with a charter flight connecting Delhi and Shillong. A Dash Q400 wet-leased from budget carrier SpiceJet was used for the purpose. The airline plans to use ATR-72 planes and focus on Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities under the government's UDAN scheme. The airline officially started scheduled operations with a flight from Indore to Ahmedabad on January 3, 2021. 

The first Flybig flight that used a plane wet-leased from SpiceJet. Image courtesy: Twitter/@flybigairlines

Flybig is also in talks with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for four Dornier aircraft that can be transformed into cargo aircraft or air ambulances as and when required, according to a Moneycontrol report. The airline was founded by pilot-turned-aviator entrepreneur Sanjay Mandavia. 

12. Air India One 

In 2020, India received two modified Boeing 777-300ER aircraft that would carry the President, Vice President and Prime Minister on official international state visits. This meant phasing out of the Boeing 747-400 aircraft that had carried the Indian premiers for the past 25 years. 

The new aircraft would be operated by the IAF and have the call sign 'Air India One', much like the US President's 'Air Force One'. The new planes are equipped with missile defence systems -- Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) Self Protection Suites (SPS), according to an Indian Express report. LAIRCM contains missile warning sensors, a laser transmitter assembly, control interface unit and processors to detect, track, jam and counter incoming infrared missiles. This makes the aircraft equal to its US counterpart. 

A new and modified Boeing 777 that will serve as Air India One

Advanced communications systems aboard the aircraft allow mid-air audio and video connection with top-tier security. It also has a VVIP suite, two conference rooms, a press briefing room, a medical room and a secure communications room with network jammers. 

Also read -- Covid-19 ticket refunds: Airlines say cleared most flyer dues, but have they really?

The rear seats of the aircraft reportedly are of economy class category, while the rest of seats are of business class category, and the aircraft can fly for over 17 hours at a stretch. The estimated cost of the two aircraft is Rs 8,400 crore.     

13. Bans on Indian carriers 

Certain countries banned Indian carriers, particularly national carrier Air India, during the pandemic phase. These bans had mainly to do with Covid-related negligence on the part of the airlines, while the restriction imposed by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) was based on the allegation of India being “unfair” and engaging in “discriminatory practices” with regard to repatriation flights and operating rights of the US carriers to and from India. 

Air India Express faced a ban in Dubai for carrying Covid-infected passengers. Image courtesy: Air India Express

Hong Kong banned Air India five times and Vistara once. UAE had banned Air India Express for twice travelling with a Covid-positive passenger. China, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia had also banned Indian carriers.

14. Seaplane

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had on October 31, 2020, launched a seaplane service between the Statue of Unity at Kevadia and Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad on the 145th birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The service is operated by budget carrier SpiceJet under the banner of Spice Shuttle. It would cut the five-hour journey time between these two points to only 45 minutes, according to Gujarat Tourism. Four flights were planned every day.

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For this, SpiceJet had wet-leased an 18-seater Twin Otter 300 seaplane from the national airline of Maldives -- Maldivian Aero. The aircraft flies on twin-turboprop Pratt and Whitney PT6A-27 engines, which are billed as extremely environment-friendly and reliable. SpiceJet said that the aircraft is one of the safest and most widely used in the Maldives and across the world. The seaplane being used by SpiceJet is nearly 50 years old.

Source: Twitter/@flyspicejet

The carrier had secured 18 seaplane routes under the government's UDAN scheme. The service, however, was interrupted with the seaplane flying back to the Maldives for routine maintenance. SpiceJet has been conducting seaplane trials in the country since 2017. The first phase was held in Nagpur and Guwahati and the second phase at Mumbai's Girgaum Chowpatty.

The AAI had planned to set up a water aerodrome in Port Blair. SpiceJet had requested the AAI to set up water-to-water flight operations. 

In October 2019, SpiceJet had announced plans to buy over 100 amphibian planes for an estimated cost of $400 million. It had also signed an agreement with the Japanese seaplane manufacturer, Setouchi Holdings, and approached the Odisha government to operate amphibian planes from the Chilika Lake. 

15. Jewar airport: Next steps 

The concession agreement between the Uttar Pradesh government and Zurich Airport for the Jewar airport was signed on October 7. The agreement was pending for a long time and it would allow the Swiss developer to begin work at the site of the upcoming airport in Greater Noida. 

According to officials, construction will start in 2021 and operations at the airport are expected to kick off from 2024. Once the airport is completed, it will be the third airport in Delhi-NCR after Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) and Ghaziabad’s Hindon Airport.

The airport is planned to have five runways when fully complete, which would bring it at par with global airports like Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in the US and Shanghai Pudong International Airport in China. According to a report in The Times of India, there would be two runways in the first phase.

Design of the arrival section of the Jewar airport

The airport is to be constructed over 4,752 hectares over the next 20 years.  

The Jewar airport is expected to accommodate 12-16 million passengers per year. This will increase to 70 million passengers annually by 2050, according to a News18 report. The Delhi airport is set to exhaust its annual carrying capacity of 100 million passengers by 2023-24. The Jewar airport is expected to significantly bring down the load on the IGIA.

The king-sized project has already started to attract crores of investment, with the potential of creating lakhs of jobs. It would be a massive push for the industrial development of the region and the country as a whole. Real estate, logistics, warehousing, tourism and transport infrastructures would be particularly strengthened and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) would get a leg up. The Jewar airport would also see a burgeoning population around the project site. 

In December, the first look of the airport, as well as its logo and official name were unveiled. The airport’s passenger terminal will be designed by a consortium of Nordic, Grimshaw, Haptic and STUP -- architects chosen by Zurich Airport International through a three-phase design competition held between June and August 2020. The airport would be officially called the Noida International Airport and the logo shows UP's state bird -- the sarus crane -- in flight. It also denotes technology and a connected world.