When Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to a regional summit in Kyrgyzstan’s Bishkek on Thursday, he chose to ignore Islamabad’s approval of New Delhi’s request to let his aircraft fly over Pakistan and took a longer route instead. But that, many ordinary Indian flyers say, is a luxury they can ill-afford.
Air passengers in the region have had to cope with longer flights and uncertain schedules since February, when Pakistan closed its airspace for 28 days following aerial skirmishes with India. Since then, of its 11 routes, it has only opened two, both through southern Pakistan. These restrictions hampers nearly 400 flights every day, according to reports.
Modi’s decision to fly via Oman came two days after India asked Pakistan to allow the prime minister to fly over its territory to attend a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Kyrgyzstan. But after Islamabad agreed to lift its airspace ban for 72 hours as a goodwill gesture, India decided that Modi would take another route, after all.
Pakistan was supposed to lift the ban on flights on its eastern border with India on June 15. But on Thursday, it said it would not do so until at least June 28.
Longer flying hours
From holiday-goers to regular flyers, many have a less-than-pleasant flying story to recount over the last three-and-half months. The most common complaint is longer flying hours. While flights to Middle Eastern countries add half an hour to circumvent Pakistan, flying to Europe and North America takes nearly two hours longer. Owing to the longer schedules, several flights that are supposed to be direct routes now have to make pit-stops
Anam Qayium, a development professional who is a regular on the Dubai-Delhi route, said that the route takes longer because it now goes via Ahmedabad. “Earlier it used to be around three hours and 25 minutes,” she said. “Last time I travelled, it took around four hours ten minutes.”
While Qayium said the longer flying hours wasn’t necessarily a big bother for her, a Delhi-based public relations professional said that a holiday she and her extended family took to Russia was completely thrown out of gear because of the closure. Four days before they were due to depart, the airline cancelled the flight, citing the airspace closure.
The family booked on another airline, only to be again told that the original flight would ply – but at a rescheduled hour. “And we were told we would get no refund since the flight was not cancelled,” she said. “Imagine the money we lost – we were 24 of us.”
Uncertainty aside, come airline companies have terminated their Indian services because of the airspace closure. For instance, Air Astana, Kazakhstan’s national carrier, has suspended its flights from Delhi to Almaty and Nur-Sultan till the airspace reopens.
Trips to East Europe had become particularly cumbersome, said Sudhakar Reddy, the president of the Air Passengers Association of India. “Most of the airlines operating on that sector are low-cost airlines, so it’s very uncomfortable to do longer journeys,” he said.
Besides, longer flying hours have resulted in surging costs for airlines – and higher ticket prices for passengers. “More fuel and more stoppages naturally means more flying costs,” said Reddy.
The airspace closure has had Air India bleeding Rs 3 crore every day. “It is just a bad time,” said an Air India official who did not want to be identified. Jet Airways shut down unexpectedly in April and it is peak travel season for Indian families, with the summer holidays underway. “However, as a national carrier we are not passing all of it to passengers,” he said.
But it is not only India that has had to grapple with a civil aviation crisis because of the Pakistani airspace closure. Cancellations and uncertainty have marred operations even in Pakistan where domestic air travel, too, has taken a hit.
“I hope the crisis resolves itself soon,” said Reddy. “It is such a peculiar situation.”