The Ministry of Civil Aviation’s website proudly lists the arrival of passengers and flights under the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM). Over 56 lakh passengers have made it to or from India under the VBM, using various modes, such as chartered flights, ships and flights operated by Air India. Over 17.5 lakh passengers have been flown in on flights operated by the Air India group. VBM, which calls itself an evacuation mission, is now into its tenth edition. But the term “evacuation” mission has been widely questioned.
It has been over a year since the last scheduled international commercial flight landed in India. As the world headed into a lockdown, countries across the world started deploying their own aircraft or contracting airlines to operate flights to evacuate their citizens. VBM was India’s mission to evacuate citizens from across the world who wanted to return to India. The initial phases saw registrations through local embassies / high commissions or consulates followed by the schedules being made available for online booking.
The United States was one of the first to object to the scheme, stating that commercial flights were being operated without reciprocal benefits under the guise of evacuation flights. India then moved to a system called “Air bubbles”, with 27 such bubbles now in place.
In normal times, flights between two countries are governed by an Air Services Agreement (ASA), but the Covid pandemic has led to suspension of all such agreements and instead specific-period agreements, with flights or seats far lower than usually allowed, are in place. These also come with exceptions; for instance, the open skies agreement with the United States continues to be in place.
The Air Bubble also came with renewed restrictions. Airlines are not allowed to carry Indian nationals to a third point unless agreed upon. European and Middle Eastern carriers that relied on Indian traffic to fill up flights were impacted with only direct traffic being allowed. More often than not there has been criticism on this decision, with Air India being accused of being the sole beneficiary.
For a short period, private carriers participated in the Vande Bharat Mission but later started focusing on flights under Air Bubbles, for greater pricing power.
While tall claims are being made about the number of people flying under VBM, the real numbers could be much lower. Almost on a daily basis, the Minister for Civil Aviation tweets the daily count of passengers who have flown under the VBM.
But there is a catch. A closer look at the numbers and destinations shows that flights operating to Dubai, London or San Francisco are also being listed under VBM and the count of passengers on such flights is announced. These destinations are in fact part of the air bubble arrangement.
Such a mismatch makes one wonder if the count of VBM indeed is as many as the lakhs announced or this includes flights under both schemes.
VBM and Air Bubble: Similarities and differences
Both schemes have restrictions and have left Air Services Agreements in cold storage for a while. In the case of VBM, flights to Saudi Arabia or Singapore still go with nil loads or a handful of loads since these countries are unwilling to accept specific citizenships or have blanket bans on incoming traffic. Airlines are then flying empty outbound and returning with Indian nationals coming home.
Air Bubbles on the other hand allow airlines of these specific countries to ply flights to India but with restrictions on seats or flight counts as was the case in Air Services Agreements (ASA). The restrictions are severe and only a small percentage of the regular ASA is allowed. In normal times, most ASAs allow traffic beyond the destination (fifth and sixth freedom traffic), but the Indian government has currently restricted this. Flights to Ukraine, for example, can carry traffic to Ukraine and to countries in the former USSR except Russia. Likewise, flights to Ethiopia can carry traffic destined to Ethiopia and other African countries.
Flights to Australia, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Israel are under VBM, but those to Ukraine or Russia are under the Air Bubble.
These are unprecedented times and the Indian regulator has been suspending international air services one month at a time. Be it slot-allocation rules or ASAs, every country has put these on hold, with business happening around pre-accepted temporary guidelines.
While the ASAs may not be redefined just yet, the second wave, along with a global vaccination strategy and agreement on travel, will mean that normalisation of international travel is still some time away. This will pinch every carrier, especially the ones that have relied on India for their feeder traffic.