Coronavirus pandemic

India slowly resuming global flights with air bubble deals

Delhi works out agreements with countries such as US, France, Germany and UAE

Police in the Indian city of Amritsar checking the details of Indian nationals returning from the UAE on a special flight last week. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

India has cautiously opened up limited air travel with a clutch of countries including the US and United Arab Emirates (UAE).

American carrier United Airlines last Friday started operating 18 flights from Newark and San Francisco to Delhi, following an air bubble agreement. The flights, till the end of the month, follow an accusation by Washington that Delhi was unfairly operating paid flights under its repatriation programme amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

National carrier, Air India, which has conducted the repatriation flights, will now be allowed to operate separate commercial flights based on demand, with schedules that have yet to be finalised.

An air bubble agreement is a deal between two countries, chalking out restrictions and regulations under which flights by airlines of the two countries can operate.

Similar agreements have been worked out with the UAE, France and Germany, while negotiations with Britain are in the final stages. Flights to the UAE began on July 12.

Air France last Saturday started 28 flights to Delhi/Mumbai and Bengaluru. These will run till Aug 1, said the civil aviation ministry.

"Until international civil aviation can reclaim its pre-Covid-19 situation in terms of numbers, the answer will lie in bilateral air bubble agreements which will carry as many people as possible under defined conditions," Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri told a press conference last Thursday.

He said that apart from a valid visa, passengers would require additional government approval to travel under these agreements and that the arrangements would be reviewed at the end of two weeks.

"Because many countries are still imposing entry restrictions, as are we, it's not that anyone can travel from anywhere to anywhere. You need permission. These are in the initial experimental stage. We are operating under strict standard operating procedures."

He noted that this was "not normal commercial operations" and that the number of passengers also depended on the capacity for quarantine.

The Civil Aviation Ministry has said domestic landing and quarantine rules will apply.

At Delhi airport, for instance, international arrivals have to undergo a seven-day quarantine at a designated facility and a further seven days at home.

India cancelled all international flights two days before a stringent lockdown on March 25, which also stopped travel within the country. The lockdown has since been eased in stages. All curbs on cross-country movements have also been lifted but individual cities and areas have continued to maintain certain restrictions to control the spread of the coronavirus.

And although domestic flights have resumed, Covid-19 fears have kept people from travelling. Flights are operating at barely one-third capacity since the resumption of domestic flights.

The cities worst-affected by the pandemic - such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru - are also among the country's aviation hubs, further complicating the resumption of aviation activities.

"The fact is that they have to open up international travel and they are doing it very cautiously. They are taking baby steps and testing. This is a prelude to complete opening," said Mr Rajan Mehra, chief executive officer of Club One Air, and former India head of Qatar Airways.

"Things are so uncertain. But this is a positive step. They need to keep moving forward instead of looking back," he added.

India has been operating repatriation flights since May 7 to allow its citizens stranded overseas to return home. More than 680,000 people have taken these repatriation flights, including from Singapore.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2020, with the headline India slowly resuming global flights with air bubble deals. Subscribe