COVID-19 related restrictions continue to hamper international travel in India. The DGCA, India’s aviation regulator, announced on August 29th that all scheduled international flights remain suspended until September 30th. The ban, which came into effect in March 2020 and has been extended several times since then, now enters its 18th month.
Countries ban flights from India
While many Indians expected the initial travel ban to last for a reasonably long time, few expected it to continue on for a year and a half. Repatriation flights under the Vande Bharat scheme and travel bubble agreements have facilitated essential travel, but international travel as we knew it has taken a severe blow.
The first couple of months of 2021 were slightly hopeful as COVID cases dropped, and by March, India had signed travel bubble agreements with 27 countries. But that was just a lull before the storm, as the catastrophic Delta variant swept through the nation and many countries opted out of the bubble, banning flights from India again.
— DGCA (@DGCAIndia) August 29, 2021
Now, in the second half of the year, some countries have once again eased travel restrictions, with the UK moving India to its “amber list” and UAE allowing residents and transit passengers. The latest to join the list of air bubble scheme with India is Bangladesh, with flights resuming from September 3rd after almost four months of suspension.
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Trying times for airlines and passengers
Airlines around the world continue to struggle. The erratic nature of the pandemic and subsequent bans has also hit Indian carriers hard. From last-minute cancellations to flying near-empty planes, Indian airlines have pretty much seen it all. In one instance, Air India flew a single passenger on an Airbus A320 aircraft from Amritsar (ATQ) to Dubai (DXB) in June this year. While a memorable experience for the lone passenger, Air India would rather wipe out such memories.
Passengers, too, have been dealing with tricky consequences of travel restrictions. Air bubble agreements allow travel to a certain extent. However, it’s not as simple as simply purchasing a ticket and boarding a flight. The added hassles and expenses of taking a COVID PCR test before take-off, and sometimes even after landing, have put many people off traveling.
The student community in India has been scrambling to find affordable tickets and decent flight connections. This is particularly so for those traveling to US and Canadian universities. Connecting flights from popular hubs in the Middle East and Europe remained out of reach until very recently.
This factor left passengers with no option but to book overpriced tickets on limited seats – sometimes as high as ₹296,000 (US$4,000) for one-way travel between Delhi and New York. Times of India recently reported that five students flying to Canada from Kolkata took three days to reach their destination. They traveled through two countries with layovers at four airports.
The road ahead
If there’s anything that we’ve learned in the last year, it’s that airlines and passengers need to be ready for sudden eventualities and last-minute changes. COVID cases in India are nowhere near the level they were during the second Delta wave a few months ago. But they’re also not low enough for the government to feel entirely comfortable lifting the ban. As of now, one can only observe and assume how the situation will unfold in the coming few months.
Have you been personally affected by this ban? How hopeful are you about the ban being lifted in the near future? Do share your comments.