At a time when India is negotiating setting up of air bubbles to gradually scale up international flight operations from the country, state-owned airlines Air India and its low-cost subsidiary Air India Express are witnessing flight suspensions for carrying Covid-19 positive passengers on at least four different flights.
In the latest development, the Hong Kong administration has banned Air India from flying to its airport for two weeks till October 3 after six passengers, from Delhi into Hong Kong on a September 18 Air India flight, tested positive upon arrival. This was preceded by Air India Express flying one passenger each to Dubai from Delhi and Jaipur on August 28 and September 4, respectively, with Covid-19 positive test certificates. Prior to this, Air India carried 11 Covid-19 positive passengers on a single flight from Delhi to Hong Kong on August 14.
India currently has air bubble arrangements with a total of 13 countries — the US, the UK, France, Germany, the UAE, Maldives, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Canada, Iraq, Nigeria, Japan and Qatar. The central government is also negotiating these arrangements with other countries like Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Israel, Kenya, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand.
In addition to suspending Air India from landing till October 3, the Hong Kong administration has banned Cathay Dragon from flying on the Kuala Lumpur-Hong Kong route for the same period after five passengers on its September 18 flight tested Covid-19 positive. Cathay Dragon said that all these passengers were travelling from India via an Air India Express flight.
This is the second time Hong Kong authorities have banned Air India from flying into its airport after a similar two-week suspension order was served to the flag-carrier in August, when the airline flew 14 Covid-19 positive passengers on a single flight. According to the Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection, eight of the 19 fresh Covid-19 cases with a travel history recorded on September 20 had arrived into the special administrative region from India. On September 19, five out of nine imported Covid-19 cases recorded were arrivals from India.
As per the rules notified by Hong Kong authorities, passengers travelling to Hong Kong from high risk countries like India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia and the US need to have a Covid-19 test conducted 72 hours prior to the scheduled time of departure. Additionally, on September 15, Hong Kong government tightened its regulations to contain Covid-19 pandemic by announcing a ban for any airline that carries five or more Covid-19 positive passengers, or operates two consecutive flights with three or more infected passengers.
In response to queries by The Indian Express, the Hong Kong Department of Health said: “The Department of Health (DH) has been closely monitoring the epidemic situation and has tightened the criteria from September 15 … to prohibit landing of passenger flights in Hong Kong … As a flight operated by Air India (AI310) arriving Hong Kong from Delhi on September 18 had 6 passengers confirmed to have infected with COVID-19 upon arrival testing, the DH invoked the aforementioned regulation to prohibit landing of passenger flights operated by Air India in Hong Kong from September 20 to October 3”.
Air India only had one Vande Bharat flight scheduled during the period of suspension on September 21, which it cancelled. In a statement, the airline said it cannot be held responsible for lacunae in the issue of test reports to passengers. “Air India, as a responsible airline, is strictly conforming to these rules and protocol. Only passengers with Covid negative reports are being allowed to board from India. Another mandatory Covid-19 test is carried out for passengers after landing in Hong Kong and reports of the same may vary from the reports of tests conducted 72 hours before taking the flight. Hence, Air India cannot be held responsible for any lacunae on the issue of passenger test reports,” an Air India spokesperson said.
Air India Express declined comment on the Hong Kong suspension issue. In the low-cost airline’s run-in with the Dubai authorities, which banned the airline from flying to Dubai airports for 15 days but reversed its order only a day later, Air India Express has blamed its ground handling agencies — also its sister concerns — Air India-SATS in Delhi and Air India Air Transport Ltd (AIATSL) in Jaipur for the lapses, as a result of which passengers carrying Covid-19 positive test reports were allowed to board the flights.
Responding to queries from this newspaper, an AI-SATS spokesperson said: “As a ground handling partner we place utmost priority to the needs of our customer airlines especially in an ever evolving operating environment as COVID-19. We take cognisance of the incident that happened at our Delhi business unit. As a conscientious organisation we have taken appropriate action in this matter. We have also upped our internal processes to ensure we continue to follow measures and guidelines issued by IATA, the government, DGCA, airport operator and our airline partner while handling all flights”. Attempts to reach AIATSL CEO Captain AK Sharma for comment were unsuccessful.
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