The airline sector has been among the most deeply impacted industries by the COVID-19 crisis. Air transport was halted in March 2020, as the world grappled with the pandemic.
Even as business continuity was a key priority, the airline fulfilled its role in an unprecedented evacuation mission, that gradually evolved into the restoration of air links and connectivity.
The company’s employees, particularly its crew, literally played a ‘frontline warrior’ role. And at a time when the virus was an unknown entity, much feared and not understood by science. There was no ‘work-from-home’ option for the ‘frontline warriors’, who undertook the responsibility unhesitatingly and at great personal risk.
Here are the highlights of Air India Express’ during the period following the crisis, and why we believe we have earned the title of a true Covid Champion in the industry:
(a) Vande Bharat Mission
Air India Express played a key role in the largest civilian evacuation exercise of the Government of India – the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM). The first VBM flight to touch Indian soil at the beginning of the pandemic was an AIE flight from Abu Dhabi to Kochi.
The Airline operated more than 15, 000 flights between May 2020 and January 2022 carrying more than 3.12 million passengers.
(b) Employee engagement and welfare:
The Airline realised that while the business was facing a crisis, the employees are facing a personal crisis too. To address this, the Airline upped its internal communications and established support teams to assuage concerns. Webinars for employee engagement and well-being were conducted on a regular basis. Emergency helplines were established, to coordinate the search for hospital beds if the need arose for employees or members of their immediate families.
Most importantly, there were no layoffs at Air India Express during the pandemic period. Work-from-home options were given to administrative staff, and ‘quarantine’ leave was made applicable in addition to the sick leave. A vaccination drive for front line employees was undertaken as soon as it became feasible. The airline entered into arrangements with various hospitals and local authorities to administer the shots at many places. Oxygen concentrators were procured and placed across the network at key stations, as fallback arrangement.
(c) Country’s first international flight with a fully vaccinated crew:
Air India Express operated India’s first international flight with a fully-vaccinated crew on June 18th, 2021 in the Delhi-Dubai sector.
(d) the first airline to implement Robotic Technology for UV Sanitization of aircraft interiors:
In January 2021, in collaboration with its airport handling company AI-SATS, the Airline introduced a robotic technology using a UV Disinfection Lamping system to clean and disinfect aircraft interiors, at selected airports.
This technology is tested and approved by the NABL laboratory for its efficiency to disinfect surfaces from germs, bacteria and viruses. The initiative, among the first in the world, received wide coverage in the Indian media.
(e) An on-board Covid protocol:
The airline introduced a Covid protocol for on-board safety as mandated by the regulator and health authorities. Apart from this, the Airline conducts periodic deep cleaning and transit cleaning of the aircraft cabins. The interiors and high-contact surfaces are regularly cleaned and disinfected by a specially trained team.
The Airline provided PPE kits and COVID safety kits as requisitioned by the passengers. An extensive awareness campaign on safety protocols to be followed during COVID-19 was carried out through all our social media handles. Our ground staff and crew took special care to ensure that all protocols are followed by passengers.
(f) CSR Initiative:
As part of our Corporate Social Responsibility initiative, 15,000 fingertip pulse oximeters were procured and handed over to the District authorities in Malappuram district of Kerala, one of the most affected regions in the state during the first wave.
It may be mentioned that the airline already has a significant CSR programme focused on the healthcare sector, and has contributed about Rs 1.5 crores for upgradation of public health infrastructure in the state of Kerala.
(g) Special efforts towards Cargo to keep supply chains intact:
The airline’s Cargo services have proven to be a vital component in keeping supply chains going, particularly in uplifting fresh farm produce. These included passenger flights with cargo as well as exclusive cargo charter operations.
The components of our cargo initiatives included the following:
Cargo in the holds, whereby Cargo is uplifted in the aircraft belly holds Cargo in the Cabin, an initiative with regulatory and the manufacturer’s approval, based on a specially designed SOP, whereby carbo was carried in the aircraft passenger cabin.
P2C (Passenger-to-cargo) operations, a special innovation whereby cargo-in-cabin was carried directionally, in the outbound direction, with the flight returning as a normal passenger service in the return direction. A special SOP was introduced, with the aircraft undergoing offloading of cargo, cleaning and sanitization of the cabin in 2 hours at the overseas station.
These measures not only ensured a vital revenue stream for the airline but also helped Indian farmers export fresh farm produce worth Rs 342 crores to markets in Gulf/Middle East, South Asia and South-East Asia.
The airline’s contribution to battling the Covid crisis has been appreciated by all stakeholders, including the customers, the cargo shippers, the community, the press and the employees. We may mention that the Airline won two prestigious awards even in the midst of the crisis, in 2021 – The Economic Times Best Workplaces for Women and the Economic Times Iconic Brand of India award. Links and citations are attached for reference.
The Airline’s commendable financial and physical results even during the pandemic period, are testimony to the business continuity efforts and the role played by the employees of the company.
Even as the pandemic was raging, the Airline, together with its parent company Air India, was undergoing disinvestment, involving an intensive time-bound exercise. Not only was the company able to handle the pandemic, but it was also able to handle the complexity of the due diligence exercise, and complete all the tasks involved. The end result was the successful privatization of the airline this year, with ownership and control moving to the Tata group.