India has once again extended its ban on scheduled international flights, this time until the 30th. Flights have been suspended since late March of last year and the government opted not to resume scheduled services. Instead, international operators can either form “travel bubbles” with India or only operate repatriation flights. Let’s find out more.
The DGCA has once again confirmed that India will continue to ban all scheduled international flights for one more month. This would be the 15th time (the first being March 2020) that this notice has been updated with a new date and circulated. What started as a one-week ban is quickly headed for an 18-month-long one.
So how are Indians traveling right now? There are two types of international flights: repatriation and specified “travel bubbles.” Only select foreign airlines can fly to India right now, and all require permission and schedule approval from the DGCA and Civil Aviation Ministry beforehand.
However, the second wave in India has further complicated things. Several carriers have suspended operations or scaled back due to travel bans in the last two months. This means international traffic has depleted quickly as all non-essential travel comes to a halt.
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Currently, nearly every airline (mostly flag carriers) have been allowed to fly to India to repatriate people. We saw this last year during the peak of COVID-19 lockdowns, as countries rushed to bring home their citizens. However, a repeat has been seen this year too, with several countries staging flights during India’s devastating second wave.
The same applies in reverse as well. The Vande Bharat repatriation mission began in May and has brought home millions of Indians. While most flights are now just commercial services, the mission also flies to destinations outside of India’s travel bubbles, providing the only air link in many situations.
The closest thing to regular commercial flights in India has been through travel bubble agreements. These deals allow carriers in both countries to operate a set number of flights for any purpose. India currently has travel bubbles with 27 countries, including the US, UK, France, Germany, Kuwait, Canada, Japan, UAE, and many others.
This has allowed dozens of foreign airlines to return to India and maintain mostly normal services to and from the country. Airlines like United, British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, Air Canada, JAL, and Emirates have all been flying to India for months now.
However, several countries have not signed travel agreements, preventing regular flights. Australia, Singapore, China, Saudi Arabia, and many others have declined, meaning that repatriation flights are the only way home for many. It’s unclear if these airlines would return if the ban is lifted, although it would make life a lot easier for airlines.
For now, don’t expect to see the scheduled international flight ban go anywhere soon. The government has not set a timeline for lifting the suspension, which means it could be months before we see regular flights resume, which has been further complicated by the current rate of cases in India.