NEW DELHI: Call it the festive cheer. The long Dussehra weekend saw the highest number of single day domestic air travellers since the start of the pandemic last March. Almost 3.3 lakh passengers travelled via flights this Sunday (October 17). Post the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, daily domestic passenger count crossed the 3-lakh mark for the first time on October 9. In a tweet, Union aviation minister J M Scindia said: “The civil aviation sector in India thrives amidst unprecedented challenges, whilst we make every effort to return to normalcy as early as possible.” Data released by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on Monday shows that recovery post second wave with the number of domestic flyers in September, 2021, touched 70.7 lakh — up from 67 lakh (August); 50 lakh (July); 31 lakh (June) with nadir of 21 lakh seen this May, the deadly second wave’s peak month. So far during the pandemic only three months had seen higher domestic air traffic than this September — December 2020 (73.3 lakh), January 2021 (77.3 lakh) and February 2021 (78.3 lakh). The second wave saw the number fall to 57 lakh in March before hitting 21 lakh in May. Scheduled domestic flights were suspended from March 25 to May 24, 2020. The lowest number of air travellers during the pandemic was seen in June 2020 at 19.8 lakh and 21 lakh last July. After that recovery started which was dented by the second wave. In addition, September saw IndiGo leading in domestic market share at 56.2% and Air India a very distant second at 12.1%. Vistara (8.7%) overtook SpiceJet (8.5%) to become the third biggest airlines in terms of flying people within India. The combined market share of Tata JV, Vistara and AirAsia India (5.8%), was 14.5%. Adding the share of AI which is soon going to be in its fold, the figure is 26.6% — almost a quarter of the market but still less than half of IndiGo’s figure. At 8.2% GoAir is also fast catching up with SpiceJet. The battle lines are clear. If the Tatas can properly manage the sudden doubling of their fleet and flight post AI acquisition — something not handled well by Jet when it acquired Sahara and Kingfisher when it took over Deccan — then the Group will have significant domestic market share. The perception of AI improving in terms of passenger experience will further bolster the numbers, apart from providing the feed required to fill Tata-AI widebodies flying nonstop from its Indian hubs to distant continents like North America, Europe, and far east and Australia (when the latter two reopen). The entry of billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala’s Akasa Air will intensify competition. The consortia that is supposedly reviving Jet also hopes to fly by next March, though there is not much clarity on their plans so far.