Indian airlines have lost over Rs 550 crore due to airspace closure by Pakistan, Minister of State for Civil Aviation (Independent Charge) Hardeep Singh Puri told Rajya Sabha Wednesday, adding the move was a unilateral measure by Pakistan “that followed the non-military counter terrorism air strike by Indian Air Force against terror camp in Balakot, Pakistan in February 2019”.
In a written response to a question in the Upper House, Puri noted that flag-carrier Air India lost Rs 491 crore till July 2, while India’s largest domestic airline IndiGo incurred a loss of Rs 25.1 crore till May 31. Budget carriers SpiceJet and GoAir lost Rs 30.73 crore and Rs 2.1 crore, respectively till June 20. On Friday, Pakistan extended the closure of its airspace for the fourth time till July 12.
Following airstrikes by Indian Air Force in Balakot, Pakistan had fully closed its airspace on February 26. While it later opened up the airspace, restrictions on overflying the country still continue — and out of the total 11 air routes in Pakistan’s territory, it has opened up two since March. One of these is westbound waypoint over Arabian Sea towards Karachi, Hingol, Gwadar, and the other one is eastbound over Karachi, Badin into Gujarat, India towards Ahmedabad. The closure of routes affected hundreds of east-west flights flying over the subcontinent but westbound flights from airports in northern India such as Delhi, Lucknow, Amritsar etc have been worst affected.
Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flight to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, where he attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit, took a detour to avoid entering the Pakistani airspace and the flight took six hours, compared with a 2-3 hour duration in case the aircraft overflew Pakistan.
The restrictions have not only led in longer flight times for passengers but also in higher fuel expenses and operational difficulties for the airlines. Even as some airlines introduced refuel stops for their flights from Delhi to North American east coast, some have cancelled flights altogether. US-based carrier United has suspended its Delhi-Newark flight since April and is likely to resume it in July. Air Canada had said it would suspend daily flight between Delhi and Toronto between June 14 and August 1.
An airline executive said that opening of the eastbound waypoint last month, saves 10-15 minutes in flight time but is still a long way from the pre-Balakot situation. Due to closure of routes that allowed westbound flights from airports in north India to enter Pakistani airspace — instead of taking a detour to Gujarat or Maharashtra and then turning right for Europe, North America or West Asia — most flights saw their durations rise by at least 70-80 minutes. Air India’s flights from Delhi to Chicago are stopping in Europe for refuelling. Further, IndiGo’s flight from Delhi to Istanbul, which was to be first non-stop flight on route by an Indian carrier has been forced to make a refuelling stop at Doha. Similarly, SpiceJet, which was only Indian airline flying the Delhi-Kabul route has cancelled the flight.