Govt allows scheduled international flights from Dec 15, air bubbles to end

While domestic flights had resumed in May 2020, international airlines were allowed to operate only under bilateral bubble arrangements
Around 20 months after flights were suspended due to the pandemic, the government has announced opening scheduled international passenger flights from December 15 in a graded fashion based on Covid19 transmission risk. There would be restrictions in the case of 12 ‘at risk’ countries currently including South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong, which have been traced to the latest Delta variant.

While domestic flights had resumed in May 2020, international airlines were allowed to operate only under bilateral bubble arrangements on some routes. At present, the capacity on international routes is between 40-45 per cent of the winter 2019 level.

The decision to open up international flights was announced by the civil aviation ministry on Friday following consultations with the ministries of external affairs and health and home.

Resumption of normal scheduled flights would imply airlines selling tickets to all onward connections, putting an end to the air bubble transport arrangement. For passengers, it would mean a wider travel choice.

Earlier, India had opened its borders to foreign tourists from November 15 amid pressure from travel companies, foreign governments and members of the Indian diaspora.

According to the latest decision, countries have been classified into two categories – ‘not at risk’ and ‘at risk’ and the total flights to be allowed will depend on that.

For countries that have been identified as ‘not at risk’, full capacity entitlements will be available as per bilateral air service agreements. In case of countries which have been identified as ‘at risk’ and with whom air transport bubble has been finalised, 75 per cent of pre-Covid operations of Indian or foreign carrier (whichever is higher) will be allowed.

In case of countries identified ‘at risk’ and with whom air transport bubble has not been finalised, 50 per cent of bilateral seat entitlement or 50 per cent of pre-Covid operations of Indian or foreign carriers, whichever is higher, would be allowed.

As of November 26, 12 countries/regions have been classified as ‘at risk’. These include countries in Europe, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong and Israel.

Scheduled international flights were suspended in March 2020 with the announcement of a nationwide lockdown. Initially only repatriation and charter flights were operated. From July 2020 onwards India began signing air transport bubble agreements with countries. At present, India has such pacts with 31 countries.

Flights under air transport bubbles are essentially scheduled flights but operate with different conditions. For instance, airlines are allowed to sell tickets for only a limited number of onward destinations. In the case of certain countries, bubble agreements allow for only point-to-point traffic.

The growing demand for air travel and capacity constraints thus resulted in spike in fares on overseas routes.

On November 25, 527 international flights were operated which is 44 per cent of pre-Covid operations. There were 1200 daily international flights approved in the winter schedule of 2019.

In its order, the DGCA said that in case an airline has sold excess seats under air transport bubble flight, those can be utilised only till December 14. Such airlines will restrict their operations to capacity entitlements under bilateral air service agreements/traffic rights available with the airlines, with effect from December 15.

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