India is likely to review its air links with Pakistan, a move aimed at scaling down engagement with the neighbour, which it holds responsible for the September 18 terror attack on the Uri army base that killed 18 soldiers.
New Delhi is already reviewing the 56-year-old Indus Waters Treaty to explore ways to make optimum use of water from Pakistan-controlled rivers — as stipulated in the agreement but not enforced fully. These are part of non-military retributive steps the NDA government has initiated after the Uri attack, apart from stepping up efforts to isolate Pakistan diplomatically.
If New Delhi decides to ban air links and overflight facilities with Pakistan — as it had done after the Parliament attack in December 2001 — it might have implications for flyers from both countries who would have to pay more and spend longer flying hours.
Sources privy to the government’s deliberations over anti-Pakistan measures said after the Indus Waters Treaty, a review of the air services agreement with Pakistan was next on the agenda.
Under the existing bilateral agreement, airlines from each side can operate 12 flights a week. While no Indian airlines flies to Pakistan, the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) operates to Delhi and Mumbai. If PIA flights are banned over Indian airspace, they will need to take a long detour to fly to Bangladesh and destinations in Southeast Asia.
“Airlines are forced to change routes only in case of an airspace closure. In this case, airlines from the two countries will have to revise flight routes and prepare themselves for fat fuel bills,” said a former official from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) requesting anonymity.
According to industry experts, if New Delhi decides to snap air links with Pakistan, there might not be an immediate impact on fares, but airlines could pass the burden on passengers in the long run.
“The rise in prices could go up to 20% since jet fuel accounts for almost half the operation cost of an airline,” said a member of the Civil Aviation Economic Advisory Council, an independent think-tank appointed by the government in 2012.
When India snapped air services with its neighbour after the Parliament attack, Air India was the only airline that operated international flights.
The national carrier’s flying time for West-bound flights increased by up to an hour and its annual fuel bills rose by around Rs 40 crore during the two-year closure, said a retired official from the air traffic control department.
A similar situation now will hurt Pakistan more because all its east-bound flights will require a long detour through China. “Our Europe and US-bound flights will become longer by 45 minutes to an hour,” said a Boeing commander with a private airline requesting anonymity.
For instance, a 9.45-hour Mumbai-London flight that travels through Karachi would fly above Iran and reach the destination an hour later, the pilot said.
Flights from Delhi might take the same route through Ahmedabad or fly through Uzbekistan.
“During the previous closure we flew Airbus 300-200, which had a maximum travel time of 5-6 hours at a stretch. So for a Srinagar-Jeddah flight, we flew all the way down to Ahmedabad and took a right from the edge of the Mumbai airspace and made a stopover in Dubai. The final leg of the journey was between the two Gulf cities,” said an Airbus commander.
The pilot said aircraft such as the new Boeing 787s are the most fuel-efficient in the world. “The fuel bills will hurt us but hurt them more.”
Airlines might face pilot shortage if the closure is for a long haul. According to DGCA rules, international flights with less than 10 hours of travel time could be operated with a set of two pilots. But if that extends, the airline would have to roster another pilot.
“A Mumbai-London flight, for instance, might require more than two pilots if air links are severed with Pakistan,” said another senior pilot who didn’t wish to be named.