The flight of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who is attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit — from Delhi to Bishkek on Thursday took six hours on account of the detour to avoid entering Pakistani airspace, which has restricted for overflying since late February.
According to a senior Aviation Ministry official, if the aircraft took the usual northward route to Kyrgyzstan’s capital, it would have taken half the time, in addition to the cost savings on fuel. The curbs on Pakistani airspace have also pinched commercial airlines in India and abroad leading to higher fuel burns, disruptions in flight operations, etc.
The Ministry of External Affairs on Wednesday said that the government had explored two options for Modi’s flight and a decision was taken that the aircraft would be flown via Oman, Iran and Central Asian countries. Notably, last month, Pakistan had given special permission to the then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to fly through its airspace while travelling to Bishkek to attend a meeting of SCO Foreign Ministers. As per sources, a decision on routes of VVIP flights is based on various factors, including security and efficiency. Pakistan on Thursday extended its airspace ban along its eastern border with India for the third time till June 28, according to a notice issued by the country’s Civil Aviation Authority, a PTI report said.
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.
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 earlier this 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 the route by an Indian carrier has been forced to make a refuelling stop at Doha. Similarly, SpiceJet, which was the only Indian airline flying the Delhi-Kabul route has cancelled the flight. As per an Air India official, it has been bearing additional expenses and foregoing revenues of around Rs 6 crore every day on an average since the airspace restrictions.
However, the official said, monetary losses on account of extra fuel burn are different for each flight depending on its capacity.