India mulls denying Pakistan airspace, flyers may feel pinch

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Published on Sep 29, 2016 09:35 AM IST
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BySoubhik Mitra and Tushar Srivastava

MUMBAI/ NEW DELHI: India may review its air links with Pakistan, a move aimed at scaling down engagement with the neighbour after militants from across the border killed 18 soldiers at the Uri army base on September 18.

The government is already reviewing the 56-year-old Indus Waters Treaty to explore ways to make optimum use of three rivers flowing into Pakistan from India, but within the ambit of the World Bank-brokered agreement.

These are non-military steps the NDA government has initiated after the Uri attack, apart from 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 — flyers of both countries might have to pay more and flying hours will increase too.

Sources said a review of the air services agreement with Pakistan was next on the agenda. The bilateral agreement says airlines from each side can operate 12 flights a week. India doesn’t have flights to Pakistan, but 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 Directorate General of Civil Aviation official who didn’t wish to be named.

Industry experts were of the view that there might not be an immediate impact on fares, but airlines could pass the burden on passengers in the long run if New Delhi decides to snap air links with Pakistan. “The price rise 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 lone airline operating 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.

Flights from India will get affected too. “Our Europe and US-bound flights will become longer by 45 minutes to an hour,” said a Boeing commander with a private airline.

An almost 10-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.

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 two pilots. But if the time extends, the airline would have to roster another pilot.

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