US Government Takes Aim At Air India Repatriation Flights

The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) has taken aim at the massive Vande Baharat repatriation mission flying to and from the US. Similar to the US spat with China, the DOT claims that India has blocked US airlines from operating their own repatriation flights while Air India flies an impressive schedule.

Air India
Air India’s Vande Baharat flights are under US scrutiny. Photo: Getty Images

DOT claims India is acting unfairly

In an order posted on June 22nd, the US DOT has notified Air India that it will have to, starting from July, obtain approval from the DOT before operating charter flights to or from the United States. In regards to US airlines, the DOT stated the following in the order viewed by Simple Flying:

“We are taking this action because the Government of India (GoI) has impaired the operating rights of U.S. carriers and has engaged in discriminatory and restrictive practices with respect to U.S. carrier services to and from India.”

The Ministry of Civil Aviation posted the following statement on Twitter:

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.

What has been going on?

India has a ban on international flight operations. And, the country has been incredibly strict in terms of flying out charters to get people home. While some foreign airlines have been able to bring people back, there are still plenty of people that needed to get home. So, the government marshaled its beleaguered Air India to conduct repatriation flights – shutting out a lot of other airlines.

Air India 787
Air India has been flying a significant number of repatriation flights. Photo: Getty Images

The DOT further alleges that Air India’s evacuation charters have not been exactly as advertised. Air India has allowed some (if not all) of its flights from India to the United States to bring people looking to go to the US. On May 19th, the agency even shared its concerns with Air India that it was selling seats on repatriation flights from India to the US to “any member of the general public able to enter the United States.”

Seeing the potential for repatriations, Delta Air Lines requested permission from the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) to conduct repatriation charters. Delta has not yet received a response to this request filed on May 26th.

Delta 777
Delta used to fly 777s on regular commercial flights to Mumbai. Photo: Getty Images

How much flying is Air India doing?

Per the DOT, Air India has scheduled 59 US to India roundtrip repatriation flights from June 10th to July 3rd. This is about 53% of its regularly scheduled commercial operations. Before India suspended international flights, the carrier was flying 34 roundtrip flights per week between the US and India.

Air India 777
Air India has traditionally flown its Boeing 777s to the US. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

How will this turn out?

The US DOT recently got in a public spat with China over flight permissions for US airlines. After asking Chinese airlines to file schedules, the DOT first moved to ban all Chinese carriers from flying to the US. After a little give and take, the DOT decided to allow Chinese airlines, in total, as many flights per week as China allows US airlines– four.

As for India, Air India is the only carrier from the country operating to the United States. Delta and United previously flew to India while American plans on starting up flights next year between Seattle and Bangalore after delaying the route a year due to the current crisis. Delta and United have not expressed the same interest in flying to India as they did in flights to China. Although, that may likely change in the coming weeks as demand starts to pick up.

Air India 777 VIP
According to the DoT, Air India opened up some of its repatriation flights to general passengers. Photo: Getty Images

It is possible that the Indian government relents and allows charter flights from Delta to fly US citizens out. Repatriation flights can be a boon for airlines. Some tickets can go for outrageously high prices and give carriers a significant financial boost from one trip than a regularly scheduled commercial flight. Given Air India’s rough financial state, it is not surprising to see the carrier trying to make as much money as it can since it has, currently, a monopoly on flights between the US and India.

Ultimately, the ball is now in India’s court as to how they wish to respond to the DOT’s allegation. Given the importance of the US-India air market, it is likely that the South Asian country will make some changes to allow Delta to fly some repatriation flights. For now, commercial flights seem distant as India’s Civil Aviation Minister pushed the goalpost beyond June 30th. Now, he is waiting for other countries to open up borders for normal international operations.

Do you think India will allow US airlines permission to conduct repatriation flights? In your opinion, is India unfairly discriminating against US airlines? Let us know in the comments!