India on Tuesday (June 23) said that it is examining the requests of the United States and several other countries to operate their airlines as a part of repatriation exercise similar to that of Air India’s Vande Bharat Mission.
“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,” the ministry said in a statement.
The civil aviation ministry also said that it is exploring bilateral arrangements with countries to repatriate Indians from various parts of the world.
The US Department of Transportation (DOT) on Monday (June 22) barred Air India from operating chartered flights between India and the United States from July 22 without its prior approval.
The move comes in an apparent retaliation for the Indian government not allowing American carriers to operate between the two countries.
“We are taking this action because the Government of India (GoI) has impaired the operating rights of US carriers and has engaged in discriminatory and restrictive practices with respect to US carrier services to and from India,” stated a US DOT order issued on Monday.
The India government said that it has received similar requests for operating repatriation flights like Air India from countries such as the US, France and Germany.
“These requests are being examined. We have also had one round of negotiations with US on June 15 with representatives of US Department of Transportation and US Embassy on this issue. They were invited to submit precise proposals in this respect. A communication has now been received on 19 June, 2020 detailing these requests,” the statement said.
It said the Indian government has imposed restrictions that prevent US air carriers from making full use of charter rights.
“Specifically, the GoI has prevented US carriers from conducting India-US passenger charter operations involving direct sales to individual passengers or through other distribution systems. For its part, the United States has not placed any limitations on US-India charter operations, and Air India has been and remains free to conduct the full complement of passenger charter services provided for in the agreement,” the DOT said.
Scheduled international passenger flights have been suspended in India since March 25 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Air India started international chartered flights under Vande Bharat Mission from May 6 to help people stranded abroad return home amid the pandemic. It has been operating chartered flights on Indo-US routes since May 18 where tickets on both the legs are sold.
While tickets on the India-US leg are sold through Air India’s website to the public, the seats on the US-India leg have to be purchased after contacting the Indian Embassy in the US.
The US Department of Transport said it appears that Air India may be using its passenger repatriation charters as a way of circumventing the Government of India-imposed prohibition of all scheduled international services.
“On May 26, 2020, Delta Air Lines, Inc. (“Delta”), via letter, requested permission from the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) 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 said.
Explaining further, the DOT said Air India released a schedule for additional flights on June 3 that includes 49 US-India round-trip charter flights that are scheduled to operate between June 10-July 1.
“On June 13, Air India released a schedule for 10 additional repatriation flights between June 20-July 3,” it said.
Prior to the March 25 suspension of scheduled passenger services, Air India operated 34 round-trip flights per week to the United States.
“With 59 flights advertised for the period from June 10 to July 3, 2020, Air India would be performing charter operation at a rate of 53 per cent of the operations it previously performed as scheduled services,” the DOT stated.
This situation, in which Indian airlines are permitted to perform services pursuant to their rights under the “US India Air Transport Agreement” while US carriers are not, creates a competitive disadvantage for US carriers vis-à-vis Indian carriers, it noted.
While Air India is permitted by the Indian government to sell tickets directly to individual passengers or through other distribution systems, the US-based carriers are not allowed to do so even if they are permitted to operate a chartered flight connecting India, the DOT mentioned in its order date June 22.
“Effective 30 days from the service date of this order, it shall not perform any Third-and/or Fourth-Freedom charter flights unless the Department has granted it specific authority in the form of a statement of authorization to conduct such charters,” the DOT said.
Moreover, it said: “Air India shall file applications for statements of authorization required… at least 30 calendar days before the proposed charter flights.”
The Third Freedom rights under Chicago Convention rules allow an airline to operate flights from ones own country to another country. The Fourth Freedom rights allow an airline to fly from another country to ones own country.
The DOT restrictions on India follows weeks after the US agency accused Chinese airlines of unfairly banning American carriers in the wake of the virus. However, the US DOT on June 15 allowed four flights a week from China after it allowed the same number by U.S. carriers.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri had said on June 20 that the government will start thinking on resumption scheduled international passenger flights in mid-July, when it expects the domestic air traffic to reach 50-55 per cent of the levels before the coronavirus pandemic.
After nearly two months of suspension to combat the coronavirus outbreak, the government resumed scheduled domestic passenger flights from May 25 but in a curtailed manner and by placing lower and upper limits on airfares depending upon the flight duration.
Moreover, Puri had said on June 20 that during phase 3 and phase 4 of the Vande Bharat mission, private domestic airlines have been approved to operate 750 international flights to repatriate people stranded amid the coronavirus pandemic. Phase 3 of Vande Bharat Mission began on June 10.
(With inputs from agencies)