Vacant middle seats an ‘eyewash’, expect flight resumption by mid-May, says SpiceJet’s Ajay Singh

SpiceJet chairman Ajay Singh termed keeping middle seats in an aircraft vacant a mere “eyewash”, saying it will only raise fares and will not be effective in containing transmission of COVID-19.

“This whole business of keeping social distancing on a flight by keeping a seat vacant is a mere eyewash. If you look at the distance between the window seat and the aisle seat, that’s less than 2 feet, so even if you leave a seat vacant that 2 feet distance is not sufficient,” Singh told on Monday.

While the government has not yet released a plan for passenger flights post lockdown, the DGCA had issued an advisory, just ahead of lockdown announcement, on March 23, asking airlines to keep one seat empty between two passengers for social distancing. So far, GoAir is the only airline which has announced that it will keep middle seats vacant to ensure social distancing.

“You need to find other ways… we can check temperature, ensure people are wearing gloves, masks. This will raise fares and make already fragile aviation industry more fragile. More importantly, this has no impact at all on the possibility of the infection getting spread,” Singh said.

Talking about flights resumption, Singh said that so far, the airlines have not received any information on the matter from the government but expects flights to resume by mid-May.

“There is no clarity regarding resumption of flights. We just know that the lockdown is supposed to end on May 3. The assumption was that some flights will start on May 4 but there is no clarity on that. The government is still trying to figure out when they should start and what are the protocols that need to be ensured that when we start our flights, flying is safe. I think the government needs some time to work out those protocols and we are awaiting instructions from the government… my expectation is that some operations may start by middle of the month rather than May 3,” Singh elaborated.

It is important to note that the civil aviation ministry and DGCA have barred airlines for taking any bookings for now as they are yet to decide about flights resumption plan and as a result, over 650 planes in the country are currently grounded. However, several aircraft of SpiceJet, including five freighter aircraft, are constantly in operation for supply of essential items and medical supplies. As a result, SpiceJet is hopeful that its cargo operations will fetch Rs 100-150 crore to the airline for the month of April, Singh said.

Airlines across the world are also trying for deferment from lessors regarding lease rentals and this is also an oppressive for SpiceJet to renegotiate costs and bring down costs them, Singh said, adding that the airline is assessing options between rent holidays or renegotiation of contract.

It has also received a “written offer” from Boeing regarding compensation for grounding of MAX aircraft for over a year and Singh expects that the offer will help the airline. SpiceJet has a total of 205 B737 MAX planes on order including 155 firm orders and 50 options. Out of these, 13 are grounded in India and 25 are parked at Seattle.

“Boeing has said that it is close to re-certification of MAX. It has maintained that MAX will return to service by middle of the year,” Singh said.

The airline has sent “significant” percentage of its staff on leave without pay but is paying those who are on duty during the lockdown period.

Airlines are waiting for a relief package from the government but expect it to be announced along with relief measures for other parts of the economy, Singh said.

“Things are as bad as they can be. Salaries, lease rentals are fixed costs. Aviation hasn’t faced this kind of crisis in its entire history,” Singh said.The low-cost airline is currently under a cash debt of less than Rs 400 crore and while currently there is no need to raise equity right away but promoters may look at putting in equity if need be, Singh said.

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