India considering ‘travel bubbles’ with US, UK

NEW DELHI: Pressure is mounting on India to allow schedule passenger flights by foreign airlines. America on Monday said that Air India will have to seek prior approval for operating flights to and from the US from July 22 as India “has impaired operating rights of US carriers and has engaged in discriminatory and restrictive practices with respect to US carriers’ services to and from India.”
European Union is also learnt to have initiated talks with India to allow its carriers to resume schedule flights to and from India.
Airlines of others countries and regions, especially the Gulf, are also eager to resume flights to the country. Private Indian carriers are also waiting for regular international flights to resume.
In response to the US action, the Indian aviation ministry said on Tuesday it is considering “travel bubbles” between India and the US, France, Germany and UK that have strong demand for travel.
“We have received requests from concerned authorities in several countries including the US, France, Germany among others requesting that their air carriers be allowed to participate in the transportation of passengers along the line being conducted by Air India under Vande Bharat Mission (VBM). These requests are being examined. We have had one round of negotiations with US on June 15, 2020, with representatives of US department of transportation (DoT) and US Embassy on this issue. They were invited to submit precise proposals in this respect. A communication has now been received on June 19, 2020, detailing these requests,” the aviation ministry said on Tuesday.
“As we move from controlled and managed aviation evacuation of our citizens in different parts of the world and foreign nationals from India, we are now looking at the possibility of establishing bilateral arrangements. These evacuation flights which were primarily meant for evacuation of our citizens from all over the world are now increasingly carrying Indians and citizens of other countries out bound to countries where they are normally resident. As we contemplate further opening up in response to demands, we are looking at the prospect of establishing individual bilateral bubbles, India-US, India-France, India-Germany, India-UK. These are all destinations where demand for travel has not diminished. Final decisions pursuant to negotiations are expected to be taken soon,” the ministry statement added.
Schedule international flights to and from India are suspended till June-end. As of now, Air India is operating repatriation flights under Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) to fly back Indians stranded abroad. AI is taking eligible people on flights to places like North America, Europe and Singapore that are allowing certain categories of non-citizens to fly back.
The US department of transportation (DoT) order issued Monday says Delta had on May 26, 2020, requested permission from Indian aviation ministry “to perform repatriation charter services similar to those provided by Air India. To date, Delta has not received approval to perform the requested repatriation charters.”

The DoT has said AI will require permission to operate flights to and from America 30 days from its June 22 order. And AI will need to apply 30 days in advance for operating a passenger charter once the order is effective. This means unless the issue is resolved, AI will need to apply on June 25 if it plans to operate a VBM Delhi-New York flight on July 25. As of now, AI has published VBM schedule till July 15 with San Francisco-Delhi of July 1 the last listed flight on that schedule from the US. The government is now preparing for VBM-4.
A senior European Union airline official said the EU has not taken any such step like the US so far but has initiated talks with India on the issue of allowing its airlines to operate flights. “It’s India’s opportunity to forge stronger ties with Europe which sees India as a partner in a multilateral world. India will hopefully leverage this sentiment of Europe for a greater good,” said a senior official.
“… the US-India Air Transport Agreement (‘the agreement’) provides that designated carriers (of both countries) ‘have the right to carry international charter traffic of passengers… Gol has prevented US carriers from conducting India-US passenger charter operations… Air India has been conducting self-described ‘evacuation’ charters (repatriation charters), between India and the US in both directions since May 18, 2020.”
The order adds that on May 19, the DoT told AI that some of its “so-called evacuation charters have gone beyond true evacuations (at least on the India to US segments) and involved sales to any member of the general public able to enter the United States,” the US DoT order says.
The US DoT has also referred to the increased Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) flights by Air India to the US. India had suspended schedule international flights on March 25. “AI would be performing charter operation at a rate of 53% of the operations it previously performed as scheduled services. As such, it appears that AI may be using its passenger repatriation charters as a way of circumventing the Gol-imposed prohibition of all scheduled services. This situation, in which Indian airlines are permitted to (operate to and from US) while US carriers are not, creates a competitive disadvantage for US carriers vis-a-vis Indian carriers,” the order says.
On May 28, 2020, the US government “first registered its objections with the Gol through engagement by the US Embassy, New Delhi. However, the Gol has thus far failed to remedy the situation.”
Accordingly, the US has now ordered that “close scrutiny” on a case-by-case basis of AI passenger charter operations until this issue has been satisfactorily resolved.

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