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An Air India Boeing 787-8. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Indian Government In Hot Water over Repatriation Flights

The Coronavirus outbreak has left millions of people stranded worldwide and away from their home countries. Governments across the globe have operated special charters to bring their distressed citizens back home since a considerable portion of global commercial air travel had come to a screeching halt. Countries with larger diaspora faced greater challenges making flights available for everyone since tickets sold out relatively quickly.

One of the largest repatriation missions that have been in progress was by the Indian government, which calls their effort Vande Bharat. It’s operated in several phases since early May bringing over 75,000 Indian citizens back to India whilst taking thousands of people out of the country since outbound travel was eventually allowed.

This, however, still only is around a quarter of the total demand since the Indian government states that roughly 300,000 Indians have registered with embassies abroad of their interest to book Vande Bharat repatriation flights back to India. Nearly all of these flights are being operated by the government-run airline Air India.

Competitive Imbalance with the United States

Air India flew to some locations in Europe and the U.S. with near regular frequency ferrying passengers back and forth. The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) took notice of this and released a statement that the Indian government was not operating in accordance with air service agreements between India and the United States.

The DOT stated that the evacuation charters have gone beyond true evacuations, at least on flights between India and United States, since it involved sales to any member of the public who was legally allowed to enter the United States. In addition, the DOT noted that the Indian government plans to operate 59 flights from June 10 to July 3, and states that it is nearly half of what their standard operations would have been if it were not for COVID-19.

Furthermore, the DOT stated that U.S. airlines were denied permission to operate these repatriation charters, referencing a Delta Air Lines letter sent to the Indian government dated May 26, 2020. The U.S. and other foreign airlines have been unable to operate passenger flights to and from India since March 25, when the Indian government suspended all scheduled passenger services in an attempt to control the spread of COVID19.

The United States government has taken the stance that due to the ability of Indian airlines to perform charter services but U.S. airlines are banned from doing so is creating a competitive imbalance between the two countries and therefore a violation of service agreements. A formal objection was lodged by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi in late May.

Foreign Governments Take Steps to Counter

Several European countries have also lodged similar complaints. The Indian government has forced flights operated by Air France and British Airways to fly to India empty to pick up passengers while Air India has taken passengers in both directions. Recently the French government forced an Air India repatriation flight from bringing passengers into France citing the lopsided policy of the Indian government. The UAE has gone as far as banning further repatriation flights on Air India and instead stated that further flights will be done on UAE carriers.

Given the increased scrutiny of the Vande Bharat missions the Indian government is now discussing creating travel bubbles between India and the U.S., France, Germany and the U.K., all locations where demand for travel has not diminished.

The United States government has informed their counterparts in New Delhi that any additional charter flights after July 21, will require individual approval and may carry the requirement of bringing in the flight empty. The Indian government has extended the suspension of international travel until July 15, so it is likely that there may be a resumption of flights at least between the United States and India within the coming weeks.

Hemal Gosai
Hemal Gosai
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