India extends Covid-induced ban on regular international flights yet again

Mutant strains of the coronavirus in several countries and India's own Covid surge seem to have played on the government's mind

India extends Covid-induced ban on regular international flights yet again
Vistara, Emirates and Air India planes at the Delhi airport. Image courtesy: Twitter/@DelhiAirport

The government on Tuesday (March 23, 2021) extended the Covid-induced ban on scheduled commercial international air travel to and from India till April 30, 2021. Evidently, India continues to be wary considering the emergence of new strains of the coronavirus in several countries and the surge of Covid-19 cases in India. 

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) announced this in a circular, which also clarified that the restriction would not apply to all-cargo operations and flights specifically approved by the regulator.

The DGCA also stated that international scheduled flights may be allowed on selected routes on a case-to-case basis by the competent authority.   

This DGCA order means that regular international air travel would stay banned in India for over a year now. It was at midnight of March 23, 2020, that the government had imposed a ban on scheduled commercial international air traffic to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Two days later, the country went under a strict lockdown and even scheduled domestic air travel was suspended. The domestic sector was reopened in a calibrated manner two months after that and since then passenger footfall at airports has increased substantially and airlines have even been allowed to operate at 80% of their pre-Covid capacity. However, the suspension on regular international air travel has been repeatedly extended.  

Some international air travel, however, had to be allowed. One of the reasons was the need to repatriate Indians stuck in foreign countries with the spectre of vanishing livelihoods and starvation looming large as the pandemic brought economic activities to a screeching halt all around the world and forced countries to shut down borders, impose lockdowns and ban air travel. Moreover, people longed to be back with their near and dear ones in this time of gloom, which the world was witnessing perhaps for the first time since the Second World War.  

Also read: How Vande Bharat Mission became key to achieve Atma Nirbhar Bharat

So in early May 2020, India launched a mega repatriation drive called the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) to bring its citizens home. What's more, several foreign nationals also returned on VBM flights. Also, certain flights were prepared to evacuate people stranded in India. 

In the first phase of the mission, nearly 15,000 Indians were planned to be brought back in a week, mainly from the Gulf countries. Not only that, over two lakh Indians had expressed their desire to be repatriated.

The first Vande Bharat flight landed in Kochi from Abu Dhabi on May 7, carrying 177 passengers and four infants. Initially, Air India and its subsidiary Air India Express played a key role in the operations. Private carriers hopped onboard from phase three, with GoAir's flight from Kuwait to Ahmedabad on June 18, 2020. Since then, other carriers also joined the mission. 

SpiceJet operated a flight from Philippines in September 2020 to repatriate 160 Indians. Image courtesy: Twitter/@flyspicejet

Till March 22, 2021, the Air India group carried 16,31,559 passengers to India on 10,251 flights. The group also operated 10,258 outbound flights during this period, carrying 11,93,679 passengers out of the country. If chartered flights are considered, till March 21, 2021, there were 30,49,150 people arriving in India. Currently, the VBM is in its tenth phase, according to the ministry of external affairs (MEA) website, and is the world's biggest-ever peacetime repatriation drive.  

As a precursor to the VBM, India had, in fact, since February 2020, organised repatriation of stricken Indian and foreign nationals in some of the worst Covid-19 hotspot countries of the world, including China, from where the virus had originated. It had also been providing safe flight for foreigners stranded in India to their native places.  

Air India planes brought back close to 1,500 Indian nationals and some foreigners from places like Wuhan in China (the coronavirus epicentre), Milan and Rome in Italy and even from a quarantined ship docked off the coast of Japan's Yokohama. Air India flights also carried evacuees from Iran to quarantine facilities in India.

Destinations across regions like South Asia, South East Asia, East Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, Africa, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Caucasus, Oceania, Scandinavia and North America have been touched by the VBM.

Not only this, but India also entered into air bubble agreements with several countries. Under such bilateral deals, the carriers of India and the partner country are able to carry passengers both ways and enjoy reciprocal rights. India was pushed into signing air bubble pacts after Air India's VBM exercise ran into rough weather in June 2020 with the US transport department restricting the Indian carrier's operations alleging "discriminatory and restrictive" practices by India with respect to the operating rights of US carriers to and from India.  

Although the kind of people who can travel on these flights is clearly specified, the air bubble pacts have brought back international air travel even if in a limited way.

Also read: India sounds fresh alert as 3 mutant coronavirus strains hit 145 countries

At present, India has air bubble agreements with 27 countries, namely Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Canada, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Iraq, Japan, Kenya, Kuwait, Maldives, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, Seychelles, Tanzania, UAE, UK, US, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. 

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri had said last year that India's decision to resume scheduled commercial international air travel depended on other countries' readiness to accept flights. It may be recalled that Oman, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had suspended all international commercial flights in December 2020 as the new and more infectious strain of the coronavirus was detected in the UK. 

The IATA travel pass promises to be a boon for flyers in the times of Covid-19. Image courtesy: Etihad

India itself suspended air travel between itself and the UK following the emergence of the mutant coronavirus. Then in February this year, with the emergence of new coronavirus strains in South Africa and Brazil, the ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) issued fresh guidelines for all international passengers arriving in India. The ministry of health and family welfare (MoHFW) stated that the UK, South Africa and Brazil variants of the coronavirus had been detected in 86, 44 and 15 countries respectively.  

Daily new Covid-19 cases in India had peaked around mid-September 2020 and since January this year, all states, except Maharashtra and Kerala were witnessing reduced numbers. However, since the closing stages of February, cases have been rising again.  

Also read: How India's air bubbles calmed US fury, supplemented Vande Bharat

India's active Covid-19 caseload reached 3,45,377 on March 23. Over the past 24 hours, there has been an addition of 10,731 to India's active Covid-19 caseload numbers. Six states, namely Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat, Chhatisgarh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu accounted for 81% of the new cases reported in the past 24 hours.

India and a number of other countries have already started to vaccinate their citizens against the coronavirus and if things go according to plan, scheduled international air travel could resume sooner rather than later. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) travel pass is an innovative measure taken in this regard and is seen as one of the keys to reopening borders safely. 

The IATA travel pass is a mobile app/digital health pass that helps air passengers conveniently and securely manage their travel in line with government requirements for Covid-19 testing and vaccination. In other words, it helps flyers to ensure that pre-travel tests and vaccination records fulfil the requirements of their destinations. Several airlines across the world have already trialled the IATA travel pass.