In-flight social distancing: High travel costs, low passenger demand

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Air travel costs have gone up for domestic flyers as onboard social distancing measures have reduced the local operators’ carrying capacity by 50 percent, compelling them to sell tickets mostly of high- and mid-price ranges.

Domestic airlines are resuming flights on Dhaka, Chattogram, Saidpur and Sylhet routes with a limited capacity from today (June 1) after more than two months of suspension. But the demand for air tickets is lower than expected at the moment. 

Biman Bangladesh Airlines has not increased airfares but are selling more tickets of the mid and high price ranges. The national carrier planned to operate seven flights to Saidpur, Chattogram and Sylhet on the first day of resuming its flights. 

But lukewarm response from travellers has made Biman drop one flight on Saidpur route from its three scheduled ones on the first day. 

Biman has three price ranges for tickets on the three routes. For instance, on the Dhaka to Saidpur route, it charges Tk3,300 for a low-range ticket, Tk5,500 for mid-range and Tk6,500 for high-range.  

The carrier has kept only a few tickets for the low range, most are for mid and high ranges.

“We have not hiked airfares but rearranged price ranges,” said Md Mokabbir Hossain, managing director of Biman.

He said the ticket reservation for the low price range used to be high. But now, fewer numbers of tickets will be sold at this range to cover the operational costs.  

“We’ll have to sell more seats at the high price range as Biman lost 56 percent of passenger capacity to comply with onboard social distancing rules,” he said.

A Dash-8 aircraft flying on domestic routes has 74 seats. But Biman will be able to carry only 35 passengers now to maintain social distancing, he said. 

Mokabbir said demand for flying is low although they have not increased airfares. As a result, Biman has dropped one flight on the Saidpur route on the first day. However, other flights will be operated even with losses to keep passengers flying, he added. 

US-Bangla, the largest private carrier in the country, has increased its low-range ticket price by 10 to 20 percent for all three routes to minimise operational losses. 

The ticket price has gone up as passenger load capacity came down to 50 percent because of onboard social distancing rules, said Kamrul Islam, general manager of US-Bangla.

He said flight frequencies also came down now as airlines will have to operate flights keeping a 45-minute gap between two flights. 

US-Bangla used to operate 30 flights a day before the pandemic. Now it will start with only 10 flights due to the restrictions, he said. 

Moreover, flight operation costs increased due to extended safety measures such as frequent disinfection of buses and aircraft. 

The ticket price hike is minimal compared to their operational cost, he added. 

The lowest ticket price of US-Bangla was Tk2,500 before the pandemic, which is now Tk3,000, he said. 

However, passengers are not yet booking that many tickets, he added. 

Novoair, another domestic carrier, resumed its flights keeping the starting ticket fare unchanged. 

“We have not increased the starting fare and passengers can buy tickets at a low range of price,” said Mesbahul Islam, head of marketing and sales of Novoair.

He said ticket demand is still good as many people got stranded outside the capital. But the real trend of passengers will become clear after the first two days, he said. 

The Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) has recently issued guidelines for the resumption of flight operations with instructions for operators to keep at least one-seat gap between two passengers on board to prevent the transmission of Covid-19.

India also resumed domestic flight operations from 25 May but did not make it mandatory to leave alternate seats empty, fearing ticket price hikes. 

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) strongly opposed social distancing measures that would leave middle seats empty, saying that it would raise travel costs drastically.

The IATA said calls for social distancing measures on aircraft would fundamentally shift the economics of aviation by slashing the maximum load factor to 62 percent. That is well below the average industry breakeven load factor of 77 percent.

With fewer seats to sell, unit costs would rise sharply. Compared to 2019, airfares would need to go up dramatically – between 43 percent and 54 percent depending on the region – just to cover costs.

The IATA supports the wearing of face coverings for passengers and masks for crew while on board.

Multiple layers of biosecurity measures that are taken for restarting flight operation will consume several hours keeping flyers stranded for long times in the airport and will also discourage passengers from traveling by air, said industry experts.

For instance, Biman instructed its passengers to report two hours before the flight schedule which was 30 minutes to one hour previously.

According to CAAB guidelines, passengers will be queued with a standard social distancing gap in the check-in points. The body temperature of each passenger by non-contact infrared thermometer will be measured. And travellers with a temperature above 99°F will be denied boarding.

Briefings will be given to all the passengers about personal safety precautions as necessary. Hand sanitisers, masks and gloves to each passenger will be provided during check-in.

A health-declaration form with three questions will be given to the passengers. They all will have to sign the form before the check-in. 

During pre-boarding and boarding time, a maximum of two rows of passengers will be called and allowed for boarding at a time instead of bulk boarding.

Operators will ensure that passengers keep at least one-metre distance from each other while boarding buses that carry them to aircraft. They will have to disinfect buses each time after carrying passengers. 

All these new travel procedures will consume at least three to four hours to get on board for each flight. As a result, passengers will have to come in the airport several hours before the flight to complete all these procedures when earlier they needed to come one hour before the flight schedule, said operators.

Such long procedures will also reduce flight frequencies for airlines, they said.