The move from Vande Bharat Mission to bilateral "Air Bubbles" for the smooth resumption of international flight operations is significant in the Indian aviation industry. The Union Civil Aviation Ministry announcement to resume international air travel through bilateral air bubbles between select countries such as the US, France, and Germany, after almost 4-months of its suspension will bring cheers from all over the world.
Substantially a good move from India, when US Transportation Department restricts Vande Bharat flights citing, unfair and seeks to restore a level playing field for US airlines. This decision will be a huge relief to lakhs of Indians stranded outside India and many who want to reach their destinations aboard too. And now, India is creating bilateral air bubbles with certain countries to ensure that eligible passengers can continue to travel directly to and from these states and their airlines, till resumption of regularly scheduled flights post-COVID 19, pandemic.
India has suspended international passenger flights since March 24, 2020, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in the country. Also, almost all countries worldwide, closed their border for foreigners to curb the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. Exemptions were only extended to some cargo flights and evacuation flights to bring back stranded Indian passengers home under the Vande Bharat Mission and allowed to continue their services.
India has the world's largest repatriation exercise namely Vande Bharat Mission and we should be proud that Vande Bharat Mission along with Operation Samudra Setu has created history by being the most acclaimed repatriation the world has seen in all these years. When the central government decided to offer a helping hand, it launched a paid repatriation mission rather than free evacuation mission Probably, it could be a 10th freedoms of the air setting new treaties in granting a country's airlines to enter and land in another country for evacuation program with traffic right and privilege to commercially collect money from repatriating passengers.
Like in the case of Kuwait refugees, a free of cost, repatriation or evacuation should have been extended to the real deserves, who were migrants, jobless, homeless, and moneyless. It was quite disheartening and disappointing that many Indians were forced to pay very heftily, exorbitant money, like ransom, for getting a seat over the chartered flights. Also, had witnessed that, many private players minted money over chartering flights for rescue operations, especially where VBM not in the schedule. Few had quoted India based charter rates, but invoiced and remitted money from abroad, pocketed 18 to 9% GST, apart from the inflated prices. For many, it was a blessing in disguise and like 'hawala' business, had their agents collecting money in India and passenger boarding from abroad.
According to the aviation ministry, in the fourth phase of Vande Bharat Mission (VBM), Air India and Air India Express will operate over 400 flights and private airlines have contracted to operate about 500 flights within July, as DGCA continued suspension of international flights till 31st July 2020, with a special provision, to allow selected routes on a case to case basis', which itself is a blanket permit to allow loved ones.
IAAI had approached all Indian carriers operating under Vande Bharat Mission to allow travel agents to issue tickets and also to carry passengers to and from India instead of ferry operations and there was no positive response. Meanwhile, an NRI Businessman from UAE contacted our new initiative AIR PASSENGER RIGHTS FORUM for want of his return flight to Dubai and had coordinated through our Legal Cell /counsel, filed a Writ petition No. 13747 before the Hon. High Court of Kerala on 7th July against Air India Express. Within the notice period, Air India accommodated him in a repatriation flight. Also, bilaterally Emirates started operation, and subsequently, all repatriation flights are granted the rights to carry passengers up and down – repatriate stranded passengers to India and carry resident permit holders stranded in India to UAE. This has changed the modus operandi - ticket sales permitted through Airline websites as well as Travel agencies and surprisingly, fares slashed tremendously down to a competitive edge.
Indians stranded in GCC countries other than UAE finds it difficult to repatriate, as VBM flights are very less and carriers from that states are reciprocally not permitted yet to fly to India. The alternative is only to depend on charter flights at the whims and fancies of certain vested interests.
Recent UNWTO reports related to travel restrictions in all countries worldwide, 156 governments have completely closed their borders to international arrivals. Such travel restrictions are likely to remain in place in the coming weeks, and possibly longer. It is not yet clear when a more widespread re-opening of borders will occur, and under what conditions. Where borders are open, some countries may have mandatory quarantine periods for people coming from abroad.
In the present scenario, it may take months or years to recover the passenger trust from the devastating impact of COVID-19, but the airline industry will play a pivotal role in the recovery of the economy worldwide.
Air travel will no longer be casual, until there is a clear cure or vaccine the public will be always concerned about general or essential travel. Passengers will consider many factors before making a booking or buy a ticket, Covid-19 protocols and safety, quarantine and health standards including insurance coverage. In terms of convenience and cost, undisputedly, international travel will become costly due to the additional precautionary hygiene protocols, which will be in place for a very long time.
“Vande Bharat" mission (VBM) is a prestigious and great achievement which helps millions of expatriates to reach home safe during these difficult times. Kuwait's evacuation program in 1990 was non-commercial. Here, the "vision" itself is purely commercial. A way of cartelization and monopolization. If VBM is to "save the life" of Indians stranded abroad, why this mission was exclusively given to Air India and its subsidiary Air India Express, expressly when these Airlines are already listed for SALE? Good to see that 4th phase of VBM is operating 1210 flights included with indigo and Go Air. Considering the pandemic as a world disaster, if all Indian carriers were made involved in this great Vande Bharat mission, many of the Indians could have been financially secured from the private charterers.
India is now promoting one to one tie-up, bilateral air bubbles with the USA, UK, Germany, and many other countries and we appreciate the government in taking this bold step to boost the international flight operations. Air ticket prices can be brought down if India establishes bilateral air bubble arrangements with more countries, which must allow more flights connecting these countries, but not only Air India. One should see that after India and UAE entered into a bilateral pact for resuming international operations, the ticket prices have been dropped to Rs 13,000.
All international flights operating as scheduled or chartered have to mandatorily follow the SOPs - safety, security, distancing, and quarantine measures set forth by WHO, ICAO, and IATA and the Covid-19 related protocols and public health requirements. The situation is dynamic, and the world countries may open their borders at different times.
Nevertheless to say that, while encouraging the global traffic, we request the government of India that, the fifth phase of Vande Bharat mission should be based on bilateral air bubble agreements with full commercial traffic rights allowing all carriers to operate and carry "eligible" passengers under the purview of government norms and the SOPs notified by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Especially in today's scenario where demand for charted flights is gradually declining, this will let more airlines to operate quality services and increased self-service, to make it easier for passengers. As the ticket pricing depends on the demand and supply, the competition will reduce airfares and passengers will have the advantage to make ticketing directly through airline websites or travel agencies at their convenience.
Such a move at this economically paralyzed stage will naturally give a ray of hope for airlines, GDS and NDC companies, travel agencies, and tour operators who all are involved in ticket sales in India and abroad. Change the old normal to the new normal. And, it will be the first global step towards the revival and recovery of the travel and tourism segments, which was almost shut permanently since the pandemic escalated in March 2020.
To this effect, IAAI along with Air Passenger Rights Forum panel member Adv Ajith Marath wrote to the Civil Aviation Minister and all concerned authorities to consider COVID as a tool of power to revamp the Indian skies as a role model in the global aviation industry.
by Biji Eapen, President, IATA Agents Association of India.