A few weeks back, a plan was released for post-lockdown flying which calls for airlines to leave the middle seat free (as well as the last three rows of an aircraft, in case a sick passenger needs to be quarantined mid-flight).
Those measures are still to be approved, but airlines can expect to take yet another financial hit if they are required to fly with something like 60 per cent maximum capacity.
Some industry commentators, such as Ajay Awtaney, are advising you not to book tickets yet, unless and until you’ve seen some planes actually take off, and you know that your money isn’t going to disappear down a black hole.
There is a counter argument to consider, however.
Book now to save?
The prospect of airlines flying with reduced passenger numbers has lead to speculation about the price of domestic flights, once service resumes.
Yesterday, News18 published an analysis that suggests the cost of a one-way Delhi-Mumbai flight in economy will rise from INR 5,000 to INR 9,700, if the on-board social distancing measures are introduced.
Similarly, it’s claimed a Delhi-Bengaluru ticket will increase from INR 5,700 to INR 11,200.
But a quick check of these flights for travel in the next few months shows prices are actually less than the projected rates quoted above. For example, here are prices for Delhi to Mumbai:
The Delhi to Bengaluru route is even cheaper:
Even better, the lowest fares shown above (captured from ITA Matrix) are direct flights with Vistara - a quality, full-service airline, with bags and a meal (of some description) included:
You can save even more by booking with a low-cost carrier:
All this begs the question - could it be a smart move to book now?
What are the risks of booking now?
First and foremost, booking now means your money might end up in a credit shell for future travel, if lockdown continues and your flight isn’t operated.
That effectively means you’ve paid a deposit for a flight that may be more expensive later. Remember, a credit shell doesn't guarantee you the same flight for the same price on a future date - it simply preserves the payment you've already made, as confirmed by SpiceJet:
Of course, you’d anyways be paying a higher amount if fares rise later and you didn’t book now while prices are low(er).
But on the flip side, you’ll be saving if your flight does go ahead and you've managed to get a cheaper ticket than everybody else.
Another fear is that airlines will slash their prices after lockdown to stimulate demand - but, for example, how low will Vistara go when it’s throwing in luggage, snacks and drinks?
Whether an individual airline will still be around to honour your booking is another question, and there’s always the possibility of an airline failing (especially after a crisis like this).
Do bear in mind that you’ve got some security if you book with a decent credit card provider such as American Express, who have always been happy to refund me in the past when I’ve been affected by service failures or companies going bust.
If, however, we wait until after lockdown, and the media reports are right, we could find that the cost of domestic flights rises considerably.
Nobody has a crystal ball and there are so many variable factors to consider when considering committing to future travel plans (will prices rise or fall in the coming weeks/ months, will the airline still be in business six months from now etc etc).
However, if you don’t mind spending three or four thousand rupees now, this could be a good time to book - especially if you are more worried about prices doubling in the next couple of weeks.
For the frequent traveller, price-sensitive buyer or those who believe prices will rise as predicted, it might actually make sense to jump in now (particularly if you have good credit card protection).
Anyone tempted to lock in your future domestic flights while prices are low, or are you happy to wait and see what happens?