US irked by Vande Bharat, makes prior nod must for Air India charter flights

NEW DELHI: Air India Limited will not be allowed to operate any repatriation flights on India-US routes 22 July onwards unless specifically permitted by the US' Department of Transportation (DOT), an official order of the DOT said. The US' DOT has accused the Indian government of engaging in discriminatory and restrictive practices by leaving out US carriers from the government-backed Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) to repatriate stranded Indians from foreign countries including the US. "By this Order, we are notifying National Aviation Company of India Limited d/b/a Air India (Air India), a foreign air carrier of India that holds economic authority from the Department .... will be required, effective 30 days after the service date of this Order, 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 United States," US' DOT said in the order.

A copy of the order has been reviewed by Mint. When contacted, an Air India spokesperson refused to comment on the matter. Spokesperson of the union ministry of civil aviation didn't offer a comment.

The order stated that Air India has been conducting self-described 'evacuation' or repatriation charters, between India and the US in both directions since 18 May, and Indian government has imposed restrictions that prevent US air carriers from making full use of these charter rights. "We are taking this action because the Government of India (GoI) has impaired the operating rights of the US carriers and has engaged in discriminatory and restrictive practices with respect to US carrier services to and from India," the order said. "Specifically, the GoI has prevented US carriers from conducting India-U.S. passenger charter operations involving direct sales to individual passengers or through other distribution systems," it added.

Air India planned to operate about 650 flights under the VBM during July, including to destinations in the US, the company's chairman and managing director Rajiv Bansal said at a recent press conference. "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," the US' DOT order said.

"This restrictive and discriminatory treatment of US carriers as regards charters has important implications in the area of scheduled operations as well," it added. Air India and its subsidiary Air India Express brought back 109,203 passengers to India under VBM, till 18 June. However, all future repatriation flights from the US will be scrutinized by US' DOT "on a case by case basis, until the issue is satisfactorily resolved."

A prior-approval requirement for all Air India Third- and/or Fourth-Freedom charter flights will enable the Department to exercise that close scrutiny, the order added. "This is a tactic by the US government to get the Indian government to allow scheduled passenger flights into India by US-based airlines," said a senior Air India official, requesting anonymity. As things stand, the Indian government has resumed domestic air services in a limited matter from 25 May.

However, international air services, except for repatriation flights, are currently grounded. Aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri had last week said the government would consider opening up international flights on a case-to-case basis in future, without elaborating on a timeframe. He had added that the government will consider resumption of international flights once domestic traffic reaches 50%-55% capacity.

At present, domestic airlines can operate upto 33% of its capacity. Subscribe to newsletters * Enter a valid email

* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

You may also like...