The Covid-19 crisis that made innovation inevitable

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The airline industry has been among the most deeply impacted by COVID-19. In India, international air travel was suspended from 22 March 2020 and subsequently, domestic air travel was suspended on 25 March 2020.

Air India Express operated a successful business model, with superior operating metrics, and was one of the lowest seat capacity costs in the world. The airline had recorded net profits for five consecutive years, before the onset of the pandemic

The demand decline was unprecedented, and air travel came to a virtual halt. While the markets opened gradually through the year 2020-21, recovery was uncertain as also uneven, with international travel recovery lagging domestic.

Air India Express, with almost all its capacity deployed internationally, was particularly exposed to the risk of uncertain recovery in its primary market segment. The Airline realized that innovation was inevitable for the survival of the company. It quickly put in place a multi-pronged plan to tide over the crisis Innovation for the New Normal: Cargo-in-cabin (P2C) flights.

The Airline explored alternate revenue streams and targeted cargo to cover for the decline in passenger revenues. There were challenges: Cargo capacity in the airline belly-hold was limited and cargo routes were directional – ie., from India to the Gulf/Middle East and Southeast Asia, and nil in the return direction. Moreover, being an LCC, the cargo was treated as a peripheral ancillary revenue, comprising under 2% of the airline’s total revenues. The airline had no Cargo division and limited sales/distribution capabilities.

To overcome these challenges, the Airline established a Cargo organization, operated Cargo charters, and introduced the innovation – the cargo-in-cabin, also described as P2C flights.

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. The Airline quickly obtained regulatory approvals from DGCA and introduced the cargo-in-cabin service. The approvals entailed amending operating SOPs, which involved close cooperation and involvement in Engineering, Operations, Cargo, Airport Services and Flight Safety Departments, as well as liaison with the aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

Thus, P2C flights ferried cargo (in the belly holds as well as cargo-in-cabin) in outbound flights and carried passengers in inbound flights. The Airline mostly carried perishable goods, especially farm produce. Besides reducing supply chain disruptions, this initiative helped local farmers to export their produce on time. After securing DGCA approval for cargo-in-cabin in April 2020, the Airline could uplift 13.4 tons of cargo per flight in all (in the cabin and lower hold) and after making some modifications to its SOPs, and securing regulatory permission, the airline was able to uplift 16.5 tons of cargo per flight.

Air India Express operated 327 P2C flights to various Gulf and South-East Asian countries, in the period following the pandemic up to September 2021. It uplifted about 4,500 tons of cargo, mostly fresh farm products, under P2C flights. At the same time, the return sector could carry passenger loads.

The initiative required enormous coordination and fine-tuning of SOPs. At the destination station, within a ground time of under 2 hours, the cargo was off-loaded, the cabin cleaned and sanitized, and dressed for the passenger service. All this while, the operating crew remained onboard (as most countries were restricted for arrivals and crew hotel layover was not permitted.)

Apart from the P2C flights, Air India Express also carried cargo in the belly holds of normal passenger flights. The total uplift was approximately 13,000 tons of mostly agricultural cargo during the FY 2020-21, and about 22,000 tons during the year 2021-22 (April to January) Air India Express’ cargo operations were possible with the help of a dedicated workforce and active business partners.

The airline estimates that it helped export fresh farm products amounting to over Rs 1,000 crores since the period following the pandemic. The success of the cargo-in-cabin initiative can be attributed to the concerted efforts of our operations, commercial, engineering, cargo handling departments and airport services along with the support of regulatory authorities, cargo handling agencies and all other stakeholders.

The Airline was able to serve several objectives through this initiative: It could cover up for lost revenue streams; it was able to serve a social cause, by helping local farmers send their produce to markets in the Gulf/Middle East and Southeast Asia; and effective utilization of the manpower and aircraft even during the darkest days of the pandemic. This operation proved to be a big boon to the farmers as these flights were mostly from Tier-II cities.

These measures not only ensured a vital revenue stream for the airline but also helped Indian farmers export over 35,000 tons of farm produce to markets in Gulf/Middle East, South Asia and South-East Asia in the period following the pandemic up to January 2022.

Robotic technology for UV Disinfection of aircraft interiors Air India Express is India’s first airline to introduce robotic technology to disinfect and clean aircraft interiors. In January 2021, the Airline introduced a robotic device fitted with a UV Disinfection Lamping system to clean and disinfect aircraft interiors. This technology is tested and approved by the NABL laboratory for its efficiency to disinfect surfaces from germs, bacteria and viruses. Air India Express has tied up with ground handling agency AISATS to launch this technology in India as surfaces commonly touched by both passengers and crew must be disinfected and kept clean.

The robotic device, fitted with collapsible arms, is specifically designed to disinfect aircraft seats, under-seat areas, inside overhead baggage compartment, aisle ceiling, window panels, cockpit instrumentation area, overhead switch panel and interiors from viruses and bacteria. Having 254-nanometer wavelengths, the light rays break apart germ DNA, leaving it unable to function or reproduce. UV-C technology is chemicalfree, eco-friendly & reduces fire hazard risks.

The UV-C light reaches the areas which are difficult to access while performing “In-Cabin” disinfection manually. Air India Express plans to extend this technology for its aircraft operating from other airports in its network in the country.

Key features:

  • Remotely operated UVDi robotic device is fitted with UV Disinfection lamping system to cover all the areas of the Aircraft.
  • Fitted with front and rear camera for obstruction detection, clarity of path of movement.
  • Built-in Wi-Fi ensures handling of Vector Air from a safe distance. Obstruction detection technology ensures added safety to overall UVDi operations.
  • Customized software specially designed to track deployment time and aircraft disinfection details.
  • Programmable built-in timer and configurable power selection mode to increase the intensity of the UV system.

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