Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Omicron blows off all itineraries, fliers and travel companies left stranded

The government’s announcement on resuming international flights and subsequent retrieval of it on concerns about a new coronavirus variant have got travellers, airlines and travel companies in a tizzy even as airlines have started flights to Singapore under a new deal.

Portals such as Cleartrip and Ixigo said they are flooded with passenger queries on new testing and quarantine rules in India and possibilities of travel bans by other countries.

“We have seen a spurt in queries on international travel over the last few days,” Prahlad Krishnamurti, chief business officer at travel portal Cleartrip, told ET. “We expect this to persist over the next few weeks as governments adapt their rules based on the impact of the new variant being reported.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has termed the Omicron mutation, first detected in South Africa, as ‘variant of concern’ that poses “very high” global risk, prompting several countries to impose travel restrictions.

Meanwhile, IndiGo, Air India, Vistara and Singapore Airlines on Monday resumed daily flights between India and Singapore under the new ‘vaccinated travel lane’ (VTL) agreement – a Singapore initiative that allows vaccinated travellers to enter both countries quarantine-free. Singapore, though, deferred VTL deals with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on concerns about the Omicron.

The travel industry has adopted a wait and watch stance over the new development.

“This is a reality, the new normal that we will all have to accept. As not enough data is available on the new variant, we are awaiting more details from our health authorities,” said Madhavan Menon, chairman and managing director of Thomas Cook, India. “While we have received a couple of cancellations, this is clearly not a trend.”

Rajesh Magow, group CEO of Makemytrip, said it is too early to assess and quantify the potential impact on international travel from India. “At MakeMyTrip, we are continuing to keep a close watch on the evolving travel guidelines and we would encourage travellers to adhere to all travel protocols and practice COVID-safe behaviour at all times,” he said. “Our teams are working closely with airline partners to ensure that guidelines for domestic and international travel are updated real time on the website and the app.”

An executive working for a travel and tours company said they were getting cancellations for South Africa and queries on protocol changes for other countries. “Travellers are asking us for updates and about changes in protocols in other countries. We are trying to apprise them of our flexible terms and policies in case they would like to change their plans.”

On Sunday, the government tightened rules for incoming international passengers and decided to review its plan to resume international flights from December 15 that it had announced on Friday.

According to the latest guidelines, all incoming passengers will have to submit travel plans for the next 14 days and upload a negative Covid-19 report on a state-run portal that maintains real-time air travel data.

Passengers from 14 countries including the UK, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel will have to undergo RT-PCR test on arriving.

Meanwhile, Japan has shut its borders on air travel, while many countries including Mauritius have tightened restrictions on travellers from South Africa.

Under the new VTL agreement with Singapore, Air India will operate seven flights a week from Delhi and two from Mumbai, Vistara will operate two flights from Mumbai, and Indigo will operate seven flights from Chennai. Singapore Airlines will start daily VTL services from Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai.

SIA will also resume non-VTL services daily from Kolkata, four times weekly from Bengaluru, three times weekly from Hyderabad and Kochi, and once a week from Ahmedabad, an airline spokesperson said.

Airline executives reported a rise in bookings and “healthy loads” on flights.

Detection of the Omicron variant comes at a time when travel demand has been on the rise.

“Pent up travel demand continues to be strong despite high occupancy and rates/air fares, and our domestic demand is even higher than pre-pandemic levels,” said Menon of Thomas Cook. “With a calibrated reopening of international commercial flights, we look forward to increased capacity and rationalisation of fares – creating a healthy pipeline towards recovery in 2022.”

Top India executive at a European carrier that operated more than 50 weekly flights to India before the pandemic said, “Demand has been consistently growing since August.” He said the government is “being prudent” in restricting travel instead of shutting it down again. Even if international travel were to resume today, going back to pre-Covid capacity would take more than a year, he said.

An executive working for a top hotel chain that runs hotels in India and overseas locations such as Maldives, the UK, South Africa and the UAE said considering the year-end season, the demand was exceeding even pre-Covid levels in some destinations over the last weekend.

30/11/21 Anirban Chowdhury & Anumeha Chaturvedi/Economic Times

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