Is the US Transportation Department fair in saying that the Indian government has engaged in "unfair and discriminatory practices" through the Vande Bharat Mission flights?
The Department has asked for a "level playing field for US airlines" under the US-India Air Transport Agreement and issued an order requiring Indian air carriers to apply for authorisation prior to conducting charter flights.
As it turns out, the US Department may be right in its reprimand, say industry experts.
"Aviation works on reciprocity and Americans were not getting their approvals in a timely manner from the DGCA (the industry regulator). This is something that was coming," says Nitin Sarin, Managing Partner of Sarin & Co, which specialises in aviation law, on social media platform Twitter.
The Vande Bharat Mission, which was initially promoted as an 'evacuation exercise,' has got back over one lakh Indians home. These flights have also flown out Indians, including NRIs, who wanted to fly out of the country.
The Mission, now rightly termed as a repatriation exercise by all - including government agencies - is currently in its third phase. National carrier Air India had a near monopoly, at least in the first two phases. The government had also fixed a price, but there were countless allegations by customers, many of whom took to social media platforms to air their grievances, that the final fare was often many times higher.
Even as Air India was flying in and out of countries, it turns out that carriers from the US were not allowed to do the same.
The US Department office in its notice points out: "On May 26, 2020, Delta Air Lines Inc, 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."
Delta is among the biggest carriers in the US, and operated direct flights to Mumbai, before international flights were suspended by the Indian government in March.
"International carriers can only fly foreigners out of India, cannot fly anyone in, not even stranded Indians even if the flights are empty. Flights must come in empty," points out a senior executive from the industry.
"They are controlled by India by giving specific clearances. When they started, only Air India was operating flights," says Amit Singh, an industry veteran and Fellow of London's Royal Aeronautical Society.
Adds another senior executive: "Yet Air India is selling tickets to anyone who wants to buy (Indian and foreigners) on outbound flights, and is the only carrier allowed to bring people into India. It is selling the outbound as regular commercial flights, though they say these are repatriation flights....All this is basically monopolistic."
Shakti Lumba, an aviation veteran and former Executive Director, Airline Operations (Alliance Air), and Vice President, Ops (IndiGo), points out that the US government had already called out China.
Lumba adds that other countries, including in Europe and the Middle-East, may follow suit.
This will be significant as Vande Bharat flights to the US, Canada, the UK and the Middle-East have seen the heaviest traffic.
Private charters also facing the heat
Senior industry executives further point out that it was not just the international airlines who were finding it tough to get clearances to fly to India.
"Many of the stranded Indians have now started reaching out for private charter services. They are tired of waiting for their turn to come, to get a ticket on Vande Bharat flights," says a senior industry official.
However, he adds, these charter companies are struggling to get permission.
"The SOP is complex. The charter company has to reach out to the local Indian embassy, which then sends the request to the specific state government in India....it's basically a nightmare," he added.
Though this delay may not be intentional, the senior official added, " but it's definitely our bureaucracy that's making it seem like that."