As the whole world continues to grapple with COVID-19 and with no firm solution in sight, we have to find ways and means to operate under prevailing circumstances. This pandemic has brought the aviation sector to a standstill, with the Indian helicopter industry too being affected adversely.
Operators who have long-term essential service contracts with State governments and Oil and gas companies are the most insulated from the impact of the pandemic. Conversely, those performing utility work unrelated to essential services, or in the fields such as religious tourism and survey, have taken the major blow, with contracts either getting postponed or canceled entirely.
As it stands today, the survival of the helicopter industry is in a jeopardy. The bottom line is that the helicopter industry can only sustain if passengers resume travel.
In the post lockdown scenario, helicopter travel will see sluggish performance; till a vaccine is found and its results are visible. The period between the commencement of operations and availability of vaccine for people, it remains our foremost concern to ensure the health safety of our passengers and crew.
The passenger traffic may rise depending upon the Confidence Building Measures (CBM) taken by our operators. The revival will also depend on the efficacy and speed of implementation of strategies to gain passengers’ trust.
‘Social distancing’ and ‘health security’ in air travel will be the guiding factors. The social distancing norms on helicopters will translate to less than fifty percent of the capacity. This would make commercial flying unviable, especially considering that even in good old days preceding the pandemic, the helicopter industry was operating at a very thin margin. In order to overcome this barrier, we have to explore alternate avenues and look at numerous possibilities and innovations that result in flying the helicopter to full capacity while remaining COVID-19 free. In order to overcome the barrier of social distancing, few measures are suggested in succeeding paragraphs.
The airport/heliport authorities would be primarily responsible for the pre-boarding protocols of the passengers. However, the following aspects shall be kept in mind while dealing with passengers:-
- Passenger Communication for safe travel- Passengers would be pre-educated about the safety norms, with the help of social media and briefed about the following aspects:-
- Importance of social distancing.
- Hand hygiene.
- Wearing a mask at all times and wearing of requisite PPE during travel.
- Printing boarding passes at home and highlight their names to reduce the need for touchpoints.
- Availability of masks, gloves, and PPE at airports on a chargeable basis.
- As per government mandate, passengers would need to have the Arogya Setu app on their mobile phones.
- Temperature scan of passengers at airport/heliport- All passengers will be pre-screened by doctors as per the guidelines issued by government authorities to prevent any COVID 19 infected passengers inadvertently traveling in the helicopter.
- Check-in Hall – At entry gates, CUSS (Kiosk) machines and check-in bay will be provided to ensure a smooth flow of passengers from the forecourt into check-in hall and security thereafter.
- CUSS Machines: Sanitizers will be provided for passengers to sanitize hands before using the machine.
- Check-In: Social distance marking will be provided as per laid down norms.
- Sanitizers will be provided for passengers across various touchpoints.
- Security- Following protocols to be observed at the security point
- Security staff to be present in requisite PPE.
- Alignment of the queue with social distance marking.
- UV disinfection of baggage.
- Additional seating, if required.
- Boarding – Ground crew to assist boarding of passengers and following points will be observed:-
- Social distance marking to be carried out at apron, dispersal, helipads, etc.
- All passengers to travel in requisite PPE as social distance norms can’t be observed inside the rotorcraft. The passengers are expected to bear the additional cost for the PPE.
The operators are equally concerned about the wellbeing of their flight crews and employees, who could be exposed to the virus as anybody else. To mitigate the effect of COVID-19 following points are suggested:-
- Permission from the regulatory authority may be accorded for separation of cockpit and cabin with the help of a temporary sheet.
- Pilots to wear a mask while undertaking flying.
- At all times all the members of the ground staff and handling crew wear masks and gloves and inculcate the habit of washing hands with soap at regular intervals.
- Base managers to procure step ladders to facilitate passengers boarding/deboarding the rotorcraft. Ground staff to abstain from any physical touch, in order to help out aged/physically challenged passengers while boarding/deboarding the rotorcraft.
- COVID-19 patients should not be transported with other passengers.
- If possible, the COVID-19 patient to be transported in an evacuation pod and if pod is not available, then the patient must wear PPE.
- Flight crew to undertake flying in PPE whenever COVID-19 patient is carried in the rotorcraft
- Helicopters are planned to remain in air to maximize the revenue. However, the disinfection of the helicopter is to be done before the first flight and after the last flight of the day. Additional turn-around time will be required to cater for carrying out cleaning of the helicopter.
If the helicopter industry has to survive in India, then the stakeholders have to quickly evolve and adapt to the ‘new normal’ and overcome the handicap and challenges due to COVID-19. However, the willingness of the air traveler will depend entirely on the confidence-building measures by the stakeholders and the adaptability of air travelers to the ‘new normal’.