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Air travelers left in a lurch after many India-US flights cancelled due to Ukraine-Russia conflict

These travellers had to make alternate arrangements themselves as these airlines did not make arrangements to accommodate them on other flights or offer to reschedule tickets. Instead, passengers were given a refund of the tickets.

November 15, 2022 / 10:40 AM IST


Travel schedules of hundreds of travelers between India and North America were upset over the past few days, as foreign airlines such as United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Air Canada and Virgin Atlantic cancelled flights to the Indian sub-continent at extremely short notice after Russia invaded Ukraine.

These travellers had to make alternate arrangements themselves as these airlines did not make arrangements to accommodate them on other flights or offer to reschedule tickets. Instead, passengers were given a refund of the tickets.

Around 300 flights to India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh and Nepal have been cancelled since February 24, information collected from multiple flight tracking portals, online travel agents and industry bodies showed. The Ukrainian airspace was closed soon after Russia began to attack it neighbour while Russian airspace was closed to airlines of many western countries in retaliation to the sanctions imposed by them.

“My flight between Los Angles and New Delhi was cancelled on March 2 and booking a new flight cost me $200 more,” said Shekhar Gupta a portfolio manager based out of Los Angeles.

Similarly, another passenger Raunaq Badjatia travelling from Chicago to Delhi on March 3 said that he was forced to book another flight at a day’s notice to attend an important business meeting in Delhi after their United Airlines flight was cancelled just 12 hours before departure.

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“I had to pay Rs 1.2 lakh extra for two tickets and was not fully refunded for my old tickets as well,” Badjatia said, adding that his new flight was via Dubai and took nearly 23 hours of travel, eight hours more than this direct flight between Chicago and Delhi.

Similarly, many Delhi-based travel agents said that the cancellation of flights had led to scrapping many of their tours.

“A wedding party of around 30 passengers was scheduled to fly from Dallas to New Delhi on February 28 but the whole arrangement was cancelled as their flight was cancelled and a new flight were not available on such a short notice,” an executive from Delhi-based Swan Travels said.

An official from Ess Ess Tours & Travels also said that they have lost out on a tour group of 20 people that were scheduled to fly into India around February 28 and had booked a 10-day long vacation in Delhi and Agra.

Air India flights were less affected, as they could continue to fly over Russia. Flying time of other airlines grew longer as they had to skirt Russian airspace. According to information sourced from flight tracking portal Flightradar24, Air India’s flight from Newark to Delhi on March 1 operated with a duration of 13 hours 19 minutes, while United’s flight on the same sector a day earlier on February 28 took 14 hours 20 minutes to reach Delhi.

Similarly, a United Airlines flight that on March 4 between Delhi and Chicago took 16 hours to reach its destination, nearly three hours more than its usual time.

Meanwhile, United Airlines has temporarily suspended flying over Russian airspace to operate flights to and from Indian cities of Mumbai and Delhi.

“Flight cancellations to India were limited as flights were still operating under the air bubble agreement between India and the US and Canada. Many more flights connecting the US and Canada to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives were cancelled. These south Asian countries were actively wooing tourists,” a senior executive at an international airline said.

Flights between the US and Asian countries were cancelled as the closure of the Russian and Ukrainian airspace had made operating direct flight unviable to due higher fuel burn, flight time getting longer by around two hours and lack of demand.

“The extended flight times will naturally cause higher fuel burn and make it harder for carrier to continue to operate these flights, as the threshold of cost versus revenue opportunity gets breached,” a senior airline executive said.

Carriers are also handcuffed when it comes to offering alternate seats on different flights to customers, as a limited number of flights are currently operating as part of the air-bubble agreement between India and the US and Canada.

Just 50 flights are operated on weekly basis by Indian and international carriers between India and the US. Similarly, as part of the air bubble agreement with Canada, 30 flights are operated weekly between the two countries.

Other airlines like Emirates, Qatar Airways and Eithad Airways that offer flights between India and the US also said that operating flights to and from North America has become more tedious due to the airspace restrictions in flying around the Russian and Ukrainian airspace.

Russia last week banned airlines from 36 countries from its airspace, causing airlines based in North America to increase travel routes by hundreds of kilometres and flight durations by around two to three hours between the US, Europe and East Asian countries.

Yaruqhullah Khan