After six months of suspending all air travel, Nepal’s civil aviation authority has allowed both state-run and private airlines to resume controlled domestic flights from Monday. For now, airlines will be allowed to operate with only 25 percent of their total flight strength, according to the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.
An initial decision allowed airline companies only one passenger per row — a provision that would fill up only 50 percent of aircraft capacity — in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. But the government backtracked from its decision after airline operators protested the decision, arguing that the ailing aviation industry would suffer further if 100 percent occupancy weren’t allowed. With this, airline operators can now have 100 percent occupancy with airfare remaining the same as before.
Both passengers and crew members have been told to strictly follow safety and health protocols. As per the new flight rules, only those passengers without any Covid-19 symptoms will be allowed to travel on planes. Anyone showing Covid symptoms such as high fever and cough will be returned from the airport after a medical screening.
Under the new flight rules, passengers will also have to wear mandatory masks and surgical gloves, while flight attendants have been barred from distributing food and drinks during the flight. Passengers have also been asked not to use in-flight toilets. Those aged 70 and above are also prohibited from taking flights unless in the case of an emergency.
The government had suspended both domestic and international flights in the last week of March with the aim of preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Flight suspensions were repeatedly extended as cases of the virus continued to spike. After resuming flights on Monday, the government has indicated that the frequency of domestic flights could be increased based on the needs of passengers and progress made on the containment of the virus. Commercial international flights, however, still remain suspended, although chartered flights have been flying passengers in and out of Nepal on a much smaller scale. Cargo flights have also been used to bring Nepali migrant workers rendered jobless in the Gulf.
The government has plans to resume commercial international flights from October 17. Already, it has allowed the resumption of trekking and mountaineering permits for foreign tourists. The tourism industry, including hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, and long and medium distance trekking routes, has already reopened, ready to welcome backpackers and mountaineers. A team of Bahraini climbers led by royal family member Sheikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa has already arrived in Nepal on a chartered aircraft to climb Mount Manaslu and Mount Lobuche. Resumption of international flights will be crucial in order to resuscitate the tourism industry which has been crippled by the global pandemic.
But some fear the reopening of essential transportation could accelerate the spread of Covid-19 in the days to come. Cases of coronavirus have dramatically spiked with the gradual ease of restrictions, showing a direct relation between infection rates and public mobility.
A total of 1,154 new cases of coronavirus were detected across the country in the past 24 hours. Of these, 674 were from Kathmandu Valley, taking the total number of cases in the valley to 16,666. Nepal, a country of 30 million, has reported 427 coronavirus related deaths since the virus spread in January. Nepal’s total Covid-19 cases currently stands at 65,276.
Health experts warn that the pandemic could turn worse in the future. “Cases of coronavirus are spiking in Kathmandu so we request elderly people, especially those above 60, to remain at home. Please follow safety and health protocols if there’s an urgent need to step out,” said Dr Jageshwor Gautam, spokesperson at the Ministry of Health Population.