India considering bilateral “travel bubbles” between India, US.
By Arun Kumar
As India expands its massive exercise to bring back stranded Indians, the US served notice that it would require prior approval for flights to and from America unless US airlines too get a piece of the action.
With its Vande Bharat Mission that has brought home thousands of Indians from more than 50 countries in jeopardy, India has offered to form “travel bubbles” with the US, France, Germany and the UK that have strong demand for travel.
The US warning came in a notice to India’s national carrier accusing it of violating a bilateral agreement by denying one of its airlines permission to conduct repatriation charters from India.
The manner in which Air India is conducting operations under the guise of charter flights creates a “competitive disadvantage” for US airlines, the US Department of Transport (DoT) said Tuesday.
Air India has sold tickets directly to the general public and planned to operate 59 flights over a period of one month — a number that is nearly 53% of its scheduled commercial operations, it noted.
The DOT notice requires Air India “to obtain prior approval from the Department in the form of a statement of authorization before operating any Third and/or Fourth Freedom charter flights to or from the US.”
“We are taking this action because the Government of India (GoI) has impaired the operating rights of US carriers and has engaged in discriminatory and restrictive practices with respect to US carrier services to and from India.”
READ: Air India announces more US-India flights from June 11 (June 8, 2020)
The order which will come into effect after 30 days says that India’s move to ban scheduled operations from March 23 as well as disallow US carriers to operate charters violates the India-US Air Service Agreement of 2005.
“On May 19, 2020, an official from the Department advised Air India of the Department’s concerns that some, if not all, of Air India’s so-called evacuation charters have gone beyond true evacuations (at least on the India to the United States segments) and involved sales to any member of the general public able to enter the United States,” it said.
“On May 26, 2020, Delta Air Lines, Inc. (“Delta”), 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,” DOT said.
It also accused India of selling tickets to the general public while its flights were operating under the pretext of being chartered flights for evacuating Indian citizens.
“As such, it appears that Air India may be using its passenger repatriation charters as a way of circumventing the GoI-imposed prohibition of all scheduled services.
“This situation, in which Indian airlines are permitted to perform services pursuant to their rights under the Agreement while US carriers are not, creates a competitive disadvantage for US carriers vis-à-vis Indian carriers, in contravention of the fair and equal opportunity to compete provision of Article 11 of the Agreement.”
In response to the US action, the Indian aviation ministry said on Tuesday, it is considering forming “travel bubbles” between India and the US, France, Germany and the UK that have strong demand for travel.
India, it said, had received requests from concerned authorities in several countries including the US, France, Germany among others requesting that their air carriers be allowed to participate in the transportation of passengers along the line being conducted by Air India under VBM.
“These requests are being examined,” the ministry said noting that it had one round of negotiations with representatives of DOT and the US Embassy in India on this issue on June 15.
“They were invited to submit precise proposals in this respect. A communication has now been received on June 19, 2020, detailing these requests,” the aviation ministry said.
“As we move from controlled and managed aviation evacuation of our citizens in different parts of the world and foreign nationals from India, we are now looking at the possibility of establishing bilateral arrangements.
“These evacuation flights which were primarily meant for evacuation of our citizens from all over the world are now increasingly carrying Indians and citizens of other countries out bound to countries where they are normally resident,” the Indian ministry said.
“As we contemplate further opening up in response to demands, we are looking at the prospect of establishing individual bilateral bubbles, India-US, India-France, India-Germany, India-UK,”.
Noting that these are all destinations where demand for travel has not diminished, the ministry said, “Final decisions pursuant to negotiations are expected to be taken soon.”
As of now, Air India’s San Francisco-Delhi flight of July 1 is the last listed evacuation flight from the US. Unless the issue is resolved, AI will need to apply on June 25 if it plans to operate a Delhi-New York flight on July 25 in the next phase of VBM.