France, US establish ‘air bubbles’ for flights to India
Air France and United Airlines of the US will operate a limited number of international flights under so-called “air bubble” arrangements with India, and negotiations are underway with Germany and the UK to reach similar agreements, civil aviation minister Hardeep Puri said on Thursday. Later, a statement by the government said the arrangement with Germany has been “established” and Lufthansa will be operating the flights.
A bilateral air bubble refers to a travel corridor between two countries that wish to reopen their borders and re-establish connections with each other. International flights to and from India have been suspended since March 23 as the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic spread across the world. Limited domestic flights have since resumed.
Air France will operate 28 flights between Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Paris from July 18 to August 1; and United Airlines will operate 18 flights between Delhi, Mumbai, Newark and San Francisco until July 31.
Puri said India planned to establish a similar arrangement with the UK soon, and under that, two flights a day will operate between Delhi and London.
“We have got a request from Germans also. I think the arrangement with Lufthansa is almost done. We are processing that request. Lufthansa will also be operating soon,” he said, adding that a similar arrangement is also in place with the United Arab Emirates starting July 12 and till August 26.
“Air bubbles established with US, France and Germany...Lufthansa will also be operating [flights],” a civil aviation ministry statement said later in the day.
Puri said bilateral air bubbles were the only way forward for international travel to resume during the pandemic.
“Till international civil aviation can reclaim its pre-Covid numbers, I think the answer will lie in bilateral air bubbles, which will carry a number of people but under defined conditions as countries, including India are still imposing entry restrictions,” Puri said.
“We welcome what the aviation minister is doing in terms of trying to bring some normalcy back to international flight operations; however, it will depend largely on the countries that accept Indian passengers. What will happen if a person who lands there tests positive, he or she will be sent back. While it is a progressive move, I don’t think will see any holiday-makers taking flights for tourism given the restrictions on hotels, restaurants etc.,” said Mark Martin, founder and CEO of aviation consulting firm Martin consulting.
According to one aviation ministry official, only the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have established an air travel bubble. Hindustan Times couldn’t independently confirm this.
The Centre has extended the suspension of international flights until July 31. Domestic flights were allowed to resume from May 25, two months after a blanket suspension since the first lockdown was announced. Only international repatriation flights and cargo flights have been allowed by the government.
Under the Vande Bharat Mission for repatriating Indians stranded overseas, Puri said at least 680,000 Indians have been evacuated thus far.
“A total of 687,467 passengers have been evacuated under the mission till 15 July. Out of this 215,495 were evacuated by the Air India group, 135,000 by private Indian charters, 12,258 by private Indian carriers and 211,361 by foreign charters,” he said.