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India’s air-bubble arrangements may not be driven by pandemic: IATA DG

The International Air Transport Association is of the view that India might be using the pandemic as a pretext to go in for possible revision of bilateral agreements.

November 04, 2021 / 07:15 PM IST
Representative Image

Representative Image

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is of the view that India’s air-bubble arrangements for international flights are not driven by the COVID-19 pandemic but the “desire” of the government to renegotiate its air services agreements.

“(The so-called bubbles arrangements) I do not think they are really driven by COVID-19. We have heard the desire on the part of the Indian government to renegotiate its air services agreements,” Willie Walsh, IATA Director General, said at a global media interaction from Geneva late on November 3. “So, I do not think it is directly a COVID-19 issue.”

Globally, countries exchange air services agreements that specify the number of airlines, flights per week, and cities to which these flights can be operated. After the global spread of the pandemic, India and many countries suspended regular international air travel that had been agreed under various air services agreements.

India extended the ban on scheduled international passenger flights to November 30, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation said in a statement on October 29.

“I think COVID-19 is being used to mask a different issue,” Walsh said. “Clearly, governments have the right to renegotiate air services agreements. But we would expect that to be done in a proper fashion and that governments do not use the situation of a global pandemic to try and unilaterally establish new air services agreements.”


Rajiv Bansal, Secretary, Civil Aviation, did not respond to a query seeking a response to IATA DG Walsh’s comments.

The IATA DG’s statement comes as India has hardly exchanged any fresh air services agreements during the past few years, although it was said to be keen to revise agreements that it believed were heavily skewed in favour of some foreign airlines.

Experts said only 36 percent of international air traffic to India goes to Indian airlines and over 60 percent of the revenue generated on these routes goes to foreign airlines.

After India banned regular international flights in March last year, shortly after the Covid-19 outbreak, the government started the Vande Bharat Mission in May last year to allow Air India and the Indian Navy to bring back Indians from the far corners of the world. Eventually, private airlines were allowed to participate in the repatriation effort.

India also entered into international air transport bubbles with 28 countries including the US, the UK, Russia, Kuwait, France and Germany, which allowed airlines of these countries to operate flights to India. However, unlike in the pre-pandemic period when anyone with a valid visa was allowed to travel, only select categories of passengers are allowed on bubble flights.

Easier travel

During the media interaction, IATA reiterated its call for harmonisation of rules to ease travel, saying it was concerned over the disparity in rules globally.

IATA would prefer to see greater coordination between governments and accelerated mutual recognition of measures principally to facilitate consumers who are confused by the different requirements, the IATA DG said. Walsh said it would be much easier for people if a more common approach was adopted by governments.

“Governments owe it to their people to have measures that are sensible and clearly understandable and where possible, to align them. The challenge is the same everywhere. The solution should be similar, if not the same, everywhere and the closer we get to harmonising the requirements, I think the better it will be for everybody and would certainly help in the recovery of the industry,” Walsh said.
Ashwini Phadnis is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.

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