The American carrier United Airlines' three repatriation flights from Delhi, spread over the next 10 days, sold out within hours, indicating a massive pent-up demand even for outbounds from India.
United will operate the flights between Delhi and Newark on July 10, 12 and 15.
But it's not just about the huge demand. United's repatriation flights, for which the carrier got permission from the Ministry of Civil Aviation, have also again shone the spotlight on Air India and the fares the Indian national carrier asked for Vande Bharat Mission flights.
The government, while announcing the repatriation exercise had fixed the fares. A flight from Delhi to the US was capped at a little over Rs 1 lakh. While there were protests from passengers and executives from the industry that the fares were high, the government said they were much lower than those charged by for charters arranged by other airlines.
United's fares, however, are just a little more than half of what was charged by Air India.
The fares range from Rs 57,498, for the July 12 flight, to Rs 60,648 for those on July 10 and 15. By the time Moneycontrol could check the fares, the seats were sold out.
" The fares are low, despite the incoming flight being empty," pointed out a senior industry executive.
Moneycontrol asked United if its flights will be bringing passengers into India. The airline responded: "We are operating three repatriation flights from Delhi to Newark on the 10th, 12th and 15th, and operating them consistent with the current Indian restrictions on international flights departing India. Customers can purchase tickets through our website united.com or United app."
Just before the news emerged of United's flights from Delhi, there were reports that Air India planned to slash fares on its Vande Bharat Mission flights by 25 to 45 percent. The Economic Times said that while an economy seat on a New York-Delhi flight will now be priced at Rs 75,461, the Toronto-Delhi economy ticket will be at Rs 75,321.
A cursory look at Air India's website showed the fares have indeed gone down, though they are still higher than United's.
Air India's New York-Delhi flight for July 9 was priced at $1,120, or Rs 83,493. From July 10 though, the flights were "sold out" well into September. Similarly, a Toronto-Delhi flight was priced at Rs 84,901. These flights, too, are showing as "sold out" from July 10 on.
Moneycontrol reached out to Air India for comments, but there as no response.
All of Air India's flights to London, Toronto and New York from Delhi are also sold out. "Shows the pent-up demand for outbound too. Something on which there should never have been any restrictions," said the senior executive quoted above.
United's flights from India come after the US Transport Department alleged that American airlines were being discriminated against and were not allowed to operated flights similar to Air India's. Even as Air India flew in and out of the US airports, under Vande Bharat Mission, American airlines weren't allowed to do the same, it said.
The Ministry of Civil Aviation later responded that it is "now looking at the possibility of establishing bilateral arrangements".
France and the UAE, too, raised similar concerns.