New Delhi: Scheduled international flights to and from India will be resumed from December 15 after 20 months of coronavirus-induced suspension, the Civil Aviation Ministry said Friday.
However, the countries deemed ‘at risk’ of COVID-19 by the Union Health Ministry will be allowed to operate only a certain percentage of their pre-Covid scheduled flights, the Aviation Ministry clarified.
The Health Ministry Friday said the countries in Europe, including the United Kingdom, and South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel have been put in the ‘at-risk’ category.
India’s decision to resume scheduled international passenger flights has come at a time when various countries such as Britain, Germany, Singapore, Israel, France and Italy have restricted air travel from southern Africa where a new coronavirus variant of serious health implications has been reported.
The Centre Thursday asked all states and union territories to conduct rigorous screening and testing of all international travellers coming from or transiting through South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana, where a new coronavirus variant has been detected.
According to the Centre’s decision on Friday, airlines will be allowed to operate 50 per cent of their pre-COVID scheduled passenger flights between India and South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana from December 15.
India does not have an air bubble arrangement, which allowed special passenger flights between two countries amid COVID-related restrictions, with South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana. Also, these three countries are classified in the ‘at-risk’ category by the Health Ministry.
In its letter to aviation regulator DGCA on Friday, the Aviation Ministry said that if a country has been identified in the ‘at-risk’ category and does not have an air bubble agreement with India, then a maximum “50 per cent of bilateral capacity entitlements or 50 per cent of pre-COVID operations of Indian or foreign carrier, whichever is higher”, will be permitted.
If a country wants to operate scheduled passenger flights to another nation, a bilateral air services agreement has to be negotiated to decide how many airlines, ports of entries and total flights (or seats) weekly can be allowed between the two.
The Aviation Ministry said if a country has been identified to be ‘at risk’ of COVID-19 but has an air bubble agreement with India, then “75 per cent of pre-COVID scheduled international flight operations of Indian or foreign carrier, whichever is higher, or a minimum of seven frequencies per week subject to availability of entitlements under bilateral agreements will be permitted”.
The countries that are not in the ‘at-risk’ category will get “full capacity entitlements according to the bilateral air service agreements”, the Aviation Ministry noted.
“Resumption of commercial international passenger services would imply reversion to bilaterally agreed capacity entitlements and termination of air bubble arrangements,” it said.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, scheduled international flights have been suspended in India since March 23 last year. However, special passenger flights have been operating since July last year under air bubble arrangements with 31 countries.
Under an air bubble agreement between the two nations, airlines of both countries can operate special flights between their territories with certain restrictions.
India has air bubbles with Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Canada, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Iraq, Japan, Kenya, Kuwait, Maldives, Mauritius, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Ukraine, the UAE, the UK, the USA and Uzbekistan.
The Aviation Ministry said: “The matter of resumption of scheduled commercial international passenger services to and from India has been examined in consultation with the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and it has been decided that scheduled commercial international passenger services to and from India may be resumed from December 15, 2021.”
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued a formal notification about the resumption of scheduled international passenger flights after the receipt of the Aviation Ministry’s letter.
The Aviation Ministry said on Friday: “The seats under air bubble arrangement which have already been sold by airlines, which are more than the capacity entitlements under bilateral air service agreements available with the airlines, will be allowed to be operated till December 14, 2021.”
“Such airlines will restrict their operations to capacity entitlements enter bilateral air service agreements available with airlines with effect from December 15, 2021,” it added.
All scheduled international flights will have to strictly adhere to the Union health ministry’s protocols for international travel issued on November 11 this year, it mentioned.
Amitabh Khosla, Country Director-India, International Air Transport Association (IATA), said in a statement: “Today’s announcement by the Indian government is a positive and welcome step towards normalising India’s air connectivity with the rest of the world.”
“We hope this will eventually lead to the removal of the air bubble restrictions, allowing passengers to travel safely to and from India,” he added.
IATA is a global airlines body with around 290 members comprising 83 per cent of global air traffic.