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India orders airlines to ground planes as coronavirus spreads

Latest move to further hurt already struggling carriers

The order will bring the domestic aviation sector to a halt as the government steps up efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.   © Reuters

MUMBAI (NewsRise) -- The Indian government ordered the country's airlines including IndiGo owned by InterGlobe Aviation to ground their planes, bringing the domestic aviation sector to a halt as authorities step up efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The order deals a blow to the airlines that are already battling a ban on international travel after the virus outbreak raged through 186 countries. Earlier this month, India suspended all tourist visas and urged Indian nationals to avoid non-essential travel abroad.

The operations of domestic scheduled commercial airlines shall cease with effect from Tuesday midnight, the aviation ministry said in a statement on Monday. It wasn't immediately clear how long the ban will prevail. The restrictions do not apply to cargo flights, it said.

The coronavirus pandemic has raged through major countries in Europe and in the U.S., killing more than 12,900 people and infecting over 294,000. India has so far registered 415 cases of coronavirus infections with seven deaths. On Sunday, the government virtually locked down the country of more than a billion people, calling for a voluntary curfew.

Several states, including the national capital New Delhi, have since then called for a sustained lockdown, with businesses being asked to remain shut and schools and offices closed at least until the end of this month. The government's drastic measures underscore fears of India's infection rate rising at a pace similar to other countries.

On Sunday, all major automakers including Maruti Suzuki India and Mahindra and Mahindra shut down their manufacturing plants indefinitely, until further orders from the government.

The outbreak forced many countries to resort to emergency lockdowns and issue travel advisories, pushing the global aviation industry to the brink. Carriers such as Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airlines and Singapore Airlines have flagged substantial losses as they cut capacity and initiated employee pay cuts. Last week, India's top airline IndiGo warned that the survival of the industry is at stake and asked its employees to take a 25% pay cut.

"We have a total shutdown of Indian aviation industry which is about 650 aircraft on ground," said Kapil Kaul, chief executive of aviation consultant CAPA India. The sector is "struggling even before the virus outbreak. The impact will be deep and far reaching, unless government intervention is meaningful and promoters bring in some equity."

CAPA had last week warned that most Indian airlines would go bust by May or June, without government aid as people abandon travel amid the pandemic. The industry may be bracing for a combined quarterly loss of up to $600 million in the absence of any government help, it warned.

Meanwhile, the government is drawing up a relief package for the sector, reportedly worth $1.6 billion in the form of tax deferrals.

--Rituparna Nath and Dhanya Ann Thoppil

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