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Flying in the time of Corona


Truth be told there wasn’t much flying happening these past few months, but the history of Corona cannot be told without mentioning how the world’s airline industry faced this challenge
Before we begin, I must tell you all that this isn’t another story on the business of the airline industry, how this virus has stopped the industry in its tracks and how it now plans to get back. No, you shouldn’t be looking at this story for that kind of information to cut down your corporate boredom. This is more a tribute to an industry that was possibly one of the worst hit, if not the worst hit from the impact of this virus and the fear that it spread among people around the globe.
It would be an act of grave omission if we didn’t start with our very own national carrier Air India. On most pre-Corona days, fliers were happy to give this once proud airline a miss. The staff isn’t too posh, the seats are broken, the flights aren’t on time, the aircrafts are too old, et cetera, et cetera. The last few years also saw the addition of “They only serve vegetarian in Economy” (a particular peeve of my own) to the list of grievances. For months now we have grown accustomed to the idea that the government is desperately trying to get rid of the state airline by selling it to a private entity. If only some private entity was brave enough to scoop up this perpetually loss making airline with a maharaja as its ironic icon. Yet, in one of life’s strange twists, it was Air India that was pressed into service to evacuate Indians stranded overseas in the wake of the Corona. Did they charge money? Was the government supposed to pay? None of that matters in this context. What matters is that the same aircraft, the same staff we critiqued no end, rose with dignity to the occasion and brought us home. No matter the risk to their lives. That warrants a salute.
While the valiance of Air India was the most visible, it isn’t as if the others were shying away from doing what they do best. All weather flying, and trust me this is probably the roughest weather the world’s airline industry has had to brave in recent memory. Certainly not in the last 20 years. Take SpiceJet for instance. Over a month long period between April 10 and May 11, the airlines had flown medical supplies between cities. Some were from overseas destinations like Singapore to Indian cities, some were within cities in India while others were from Indian cities to overseas destinations like Myanmar and Bahrain. In a bid to boost Indian pisciculture, SpiceJet flew a staggering 2 million kilogrammes of shrimp and farm produce during the lockdown. On the sidelines it procured and presented 400 face shields for the police in Gurugram. “It is a moment of pride for our aviation sector to see the government’s ‘Lifeline Udan’ initiative scripting a great success story in these unprecedented times. SpiceJet is proud to be a part of this crucial initiative of transporting medical and other vital supplies by placing not just its freighter but passenger fleet too to maximum utilisation,” said Ajay Singh, Chairman and MD of the airlines.
IndiGo Airlines too jumped in on the let’s-help-our-country bandwagon and by April 7 had already run as many as 30 relief flights across the country. They weren’t people of course but tons of medical supplies and relief material that were needed across the length and breadth of our vast nation. “We are humbled and gratified that despite the lockdown, we have so far been authorized to operate at our own cost over thirty emergency relief flights carrying medical equipment and supplies from one part of the country to another. We know how critical it is for health workers in every corner of the country to get immediate access to medical supplies, and we are grateful to be allowed to play a role, however modest, in this supply chain,” said Ronojoy Dutta, CEO of IndiGo. What’s more, these flights were operated by the company at its own cost, hopefully on time too for ‘On time is a wonderful thing’.
On the other hand GoAir, which doesn’t yet have international flights, offered the airline’s fleet of aircraft, pilots, cabin crew and ground personnel to the government to carry out relief work as well as for the repatriation of citizens. In response to the plight of thousands of stranded migrant workers and after seeing scenes of them trying to walk hundreds of kilometres home with their families including children, GoAir reached out to the Ministry of Civil Aviation and offered its services to fly these workers and their families to the airports closest to their homes. “GoAir has always maintained ‘nation before company’ approach and the airline is fully supportive of the initiatives announced by our Honorable Prime Minister,” said GoAir’s MD, JehWadia.
At this point, the story could have ended but this story cannot until we have mentioned the two largest manufacturers of commercial aircraft in the world – Boeing and Airbus. Both companies pitched in with their considerable resources in the production of emergency supplies that the world has needed since the outbreak of the deadly virus. Airbus joined industrial, technology and engineering businesses across the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors in responding to the UK government’s call for help in producing additional medical ventilators. The company then went on to transport approximately 2.5 million face masks aboard a flight test A330-800 from Tianjin to Airbus’ headquarters location in Toulouse, France.  An A400M transporter then flew to Toulouse to pick up hundreds of thousands of these masks for transfer to Getafe, Spain. 70% of the masks were donated to the French and Spanish governments, while the rest are being distributed to Airbus teams in France and Spain. Days later, Airbus deployed another air-bridge flight between China and Europe to deliver more than four million face masks to hospitals and public services across France, Germany, Spain and the UK. This mission utilised an Airbus A330-200 that is being converted to an A330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport) for a military operator. Meanwhile, Boeing resorted to 3D printing of face shields to rapidly augment supplies of personal protective equipment or PPEs. Like Airbus, the company then went on to press its fleet of aircraft into service around the world, assisting global relief efforts. There were others too that joined in. Among them Embraer.
All this, from an industry that took a sucker punch to the face when the virus broke out and the global travel industry, on which lay the base of its very existence, simply collapsed in a heap. If that doesn’t set your heart soaring for these warriors of the sky, don't know what will.