As the airfares are steading doubling for students and family members that are returning from Europe and North America and even these cold winters, and flights that are permitted from a limited 28 countries are running packed, the government is facing a lot of pressure from many places; including the tourism industry and foreign embassies which are to restore regular global travel that was cancelled due to the pandemic in March 2020.
Some Diplomatic sources told The Hindu that quite a number of embassies have approached the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Civil Aviation where they demanded an end to what they notice as an ‘unfair’ system where only those nations whose government has signed or chosen to sign “air travel bubble” agreements with are only able to carry out flights and even those are only limited according to the government’s reciprocal agreements.
Along with these, the agreements are noted to be only “end to end”, which is not valid for travel to a third country which means that travellers frequently must break journeys at different points to a place to which India does not permit a straight flight. At a recent event which was organized by a think-tank of Delhi, Minister of Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Sc India faced a lot of questions from high commissioners and ambassadors on this specific issue and was requested to normalize the air flights to pre-Corona levels, according to the attendees.
“There is a general feeling that air bubbles have dragged on for far too long. International flights could reopen in December-January. The thinking in the government has changed recently as COVID cases are on the wane,” as told by one official to The Hindu, stating that the government now feels the pressure of reconsidering the policy.
With almost 100 countries are accepting Indians who are vaccinated with vaccines that approved by WHO like Covaxin and Covishield, airlines and travel agents are now asking the reason that why is India not rationalizing the flights, even with the suggestion that the government is holding out for again negotiating the air service agreements.
“The so-called bubbles, I don’t really think are driven by COVID. Because we’ve heard of the desire on the part of the Indian Government to renegotiate their air service agreements. I think COVID is being used to mask a different issue,” President Willie Walsh of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said at a press conference in Geneva earlier this month.
The Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Ministry of External Affairs chose not to respond to requests for any comment on the allegations.
The European countries were particularly most affected as they served as hubs for travel to India. For instance, Switzerland had written to the government to restart straight flights of the Swiss International Airlines in February 2021 and opened for all vaccinated Indians in June but still, no permissions have yet come through. A ticket of Chennai-Zurich could now almost cost a traveler INR 2.75 lakhs. Flights from Canada and the U.S. cost approximately more than INR 1 lakh one way, while some European passengers have to give the journey a break in two places to travel to India.
“What makes it particularly unfair is that the bubbles are being run under the COVID pretext, and the agreements say they are meant only to evacuate stranded passengers, and only to a single country,” a diplomat told The Hindu, pointing out that most of the airlines were violating that.
The bubbles also “favour” Gulf-country carriers, which have now become practically “national carriers for India, according to an aviation industry source. Out of all European nations, only 4 nations including the UK have signed the bubble agreements with India and also operates around 42 flights between Europe and India every week. In relation, India has agreements with five Gulf West Asian nations, Qatar Airways, Etihad (UAE), and Emirates which alone operate almost 185 flights to India, as stated by sources.
In response to why India is not accepting the requests of several nations to set up air bubbles, officials of the Ministry of Civil Aviation stated that the Covid situation was the first and foremost concern, which followed by, “capacity of Indian carriers and whether our airlines want to fly to these destinations or not.”
An aviation veteran also pointed out that, “If you cap the limit of foreign carriers according to the capacity of Indian carriers, the Indian market is never going to be serviced. You don’t have an Indian carrier with 1,500 widebodies [aircraft] to service the demand for international travel from and to India. This will take India back to the 90s.”