India / Passengers, airlines face steep costs due to closure of Pak airspace

Hindustan Times : May 15, 2019, 10:40 AM
The closure of Pakistan’s airspace for nearly three months has hit travellers and airlines from Afghanistan and Central Asia the hardest, with some airlines suspending or reducing flights while passengers grapple with a sharp rise in fares.

The fare for the Delhi-Kabul flight on Afghanistan’s Kam Air, for instance, has gone from $160 to almost $300 as the capacity has reduced substantially. Flight time has also doubled to six hours, and prices have increased as airlines cope with the costs of the longer time spent in the air. The Airports Authority of India (AAI) has deployed more air traffic controllers at Mumbai airport, with the number of international flights the airport now handles increasing by 60%.

Pakistan shut its airspace to commercial flights originating in India or transiting through Indian airspace soon after Indian jets targeted a Jaish-e-Mohammed facility at Balakot on February 26. The air strike was carried out in retaliation to the suicide bombing by JeM at Pulwama in Kashmir that killed 40 troopers.

“Flights from Iran, Iraq or the US used to come via Pakistani airspace, but they have now shifted to Muscat airspace and come from the Mumbai side. Some flights took just 60 minutes via Pakistani airspace but the travel time has now doubled,” said an AAI official who didn’t want to be named. “With the help of extra air traffic controllers, we are managing the additional air traffic over Mumbai airspace.”

As tensions spiked between India and Pakistan in late February, the embassy of Kazakhstan had to arrange accommodation for dozens of stranded travellers at hotels in the capital for three days till alternative flights could be arranged, people familiar with developments said.

Among those affected the most are Afghan citizens who travel to India for medical treatment, the people said.

SpiceJet had cancelled its flight to Kabul, while Air India has shifted its flight to Najaf in Iraq from New Delhi to Mumbai. Some international airlines, including United Airlines, have cancelled certain flights to India.

The people cited above said Kam Air is currently considering the reduction of its daily flights on the Kabul-Delhi route. The “air corridor” flights between Kabul and key Indian cities, started with the Indian government’s support to boost exports of Afghan goods, have also been reduced to once a month.

In the case of Central Asian airlines, the time for flights from the region to New Delhi has increased by up to four hours as airliners have to fly via destinations such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Kazakhstan’s Air Astana, which had four flights a week to New Delhi, has suspended its operations to India till May 31, with a statement on the airline’s website attributing the move “to the closure of airspace between Pakistan and India”. People familiar with developments said Air Astana had stopped the flights as the higher costs made them financially unsustainable.

Uzbekistan Airways has maintained its flights to Amritsar, Delhi and Mumbai while Turkmenistan Airways has suspended flights to Amritsar, the people cited above said.

The closure of Pakistani airspace has led to a sharp increase in fares — by 40% to 50% for same-day bookings and, in some cases, up to 200% for last-minute purchases, according to travel portals. Imports and exports have also become costlier as cargo planes too have to make lengthy detours.

Pakistan’s science and technology minister Fawad Chaudhry recently said the closure could continue till India’s election process is completed and a new government is in place in New Delhi.