Omicron effect: Chorus grows against resumption of normal foreign flight ops

New Delhi, Dec 1 : chorus is growing loud in India against the opening up of normal international flight operations from December 15 against the back of the new and reportedly more infectious ‘Omicron’ variant of Covid-19.

The demand coincides with the Centre’s advisory to states and Union Territories (UTs) to ensure preparedness of health infrastructure like availability of ICU, O2 beds, ventilators, among others, and to focus on rural areas.

At present, several nations have either closed their air spaces or placed strict restrictions on incoming passengers.

In this environment, especially after suffering the massive second wave of Covid-19 which was unleashed by the Delta variant, many are questioning the Centre’s move to open up the sector.

Accordingly, a survey done by LocalCircles, a majority of people want the Centre to reconsider its decision on lifting of foreign flights in light of the new Omicron or Covid B.1.1.529 variant.

“Two in three citizens want the government to reconsider its decision about restarting international flights from December 15, 2021, in light of the new Omicron or Covid B.1.1.529 variant,” the survey showed.

At present, several countries in Europe have gone into lockdowns due to rising Covid-19 Delta cases and Japan has suspended international flights.

A few other countries have either banned or placed strict restrictions on international flights.

Meanwhile, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Tuesday raised concerns on the delay in stopping international flights.

“Many countries have stopped incoming flights from Omicron-affected countries. Why are we delaying? Even in the first wave, we had delayed stopping foreign flights. Most of the foreign flights come to Delhi, which is the most affected. Prime Minister, please stop flights immediately,” Kejriwal posted on Twitter.

As per the Centre’s guidelines, the passengers travelling from countries that are categorised as ‘at risk’ will have to undergo testing on arrival. These guidelines will come into effect from Tuesday midnight.

Union Health Secretary, Rajesh Bhushan chaired a high-level meeting with states and UTs to review measures and preparedness amid reports of Omicron variant of Covid-19 across various countries.

The states were advised to undertake effective surveillance of international passengers, strengthen the testing infrastructure, effective monitoring of hotspots, and ensuring augmentation of health infrastructure.

As per Mumbai’s CSMIA, under the latest directive issued by the Maharashtra government, arriving passengers from high-risk countries, will be segregated from passengers arriving from low-risk countries.

“Adequate RT-PCR testing facility in international arrivals in form of 48 registration counters and 40 sampling booths.”

“A large sitting area for the passengers awaiting their RT-PCR results has been activated with amenities like washrooms, foods and beverages.”

But aviation stakeholders do not favour blanket bans.

“Well, suspending or extending the suspension of flights would be a knee-jerk reaction. We need better screening at the airports and ensuring that only fully vaccinated people travel to the country,” said Rajiv Mehra, Indian Association of Tour Operators President.

“We should be alert but avoid alarmist attitude. Medical experts also are of the opinion that there should not be a scare, however, we should continue to wear a mask and follow Covid-appropriate behaviour.”

According to Rikant Pittie, Co-Founder, EaseMyTrip, “We need to continue to take all necessary precautions regarding Covid-19 and the new variant. It is important to prevent another wave and we understand the importance of staying safe during these trying times.”

“We will continue to operate following the norms presented by the Indian government to safeguard everyone against the third wave of Covid.”

India decided to allow resumption of scheduled commercial international passenger services from December 15.

However, the government said there will be a calibrated resumption of operations from the countries recognised as “at risk” by the Union Health Ministry.

There are more than 10 countries in the “at risk” list, including countries in Europe, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana and China, among others.

Passenger air services were suspended in late March 2020 due to the nationwide lockdown to check the spread of Covid-19. While domestic flight services resumed from May 25, 2020, international flight services were only maintained through bilateral ‘Bubble Agreements’.

India has air bubble pacts with 28 countries.