Over a month after Pakistan imposed restrictions on its airspace in the aftermath of the Balakot airstrike, the country has relaxed certain limitations.
However, for Indian carriers and flights coming in to New Delhi from the West, the makeshift arrangements continue. These include refuelling stopovers, stricter baggage allowances and cancellations of flights altogether.
Originally, back in February, while the entire airspace was shut causing mass cancellations of flights within Pakistan and causing routing complexities for overflying planes, Pakistan has since relaxed the restrictions.
On Thursday, India’s western neighbour opened up a small part of its airspace for transiting flights towards the southern end of its air territory and for flights transiting to the West, a senior government official said. However, for flights coming in the opposite direction, the restriction continues, he said.
A bulk of Indian carriers flying West out of Delhi — which earlier exited Indian airspace by entering the Lahore or Karachi flight region — had to route via Mumbai region before proceeding to the West after flying over the Middle East.
Tense geopolitics taking a toll on foreign airlines too
Longer the airspace of Pakistan remains closed, even partially, higher will the costs be for Indian carriers, including low-cost airlines, flying from northern sectors such as Delhi and Lucknow to Middle East airports such as Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi, etc. The geopolitical tension between India and Pakistan, particularly as a consequence of the Balakot strikes, has come at a high price not only for India’s aviation sector, which is among the fastest growing in the world, but also for other foreign airlines operating long-haul West-East flights.
Initially, a number of flights, including SpiceJet’s flight to Kabul from Delhi, Air India’s Delhi-Birmingham and Amritsar-Birmingham were suspended.
Now, while Air India has restarted its flights, SpiceJet’s Delhi-Kabul flight — which is the only one by an Indian carrier on the route — remains suspended.
Even for foreign airlines flying to New Delhi which earlier flew over Pakistan, the flight times increased due to the rerouting.
Flights from Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Frankfurt, Paris, Amsterdam had to be rerouted to avoid entering Pakistan before entering India to break the continuity in airspace usage. To deal with the elongated flight times, airlines introduced refuelling stops on long-haul flights to the West.
Air India flights from Delhi to New York and Chicago now stop at Vienna for refuelling. IndiGo’s non-stop flight from Delhi to Istanbul, which was launched last month, has to stop at Doha before proceeding to the Turkish airport. Notably, Turkish Airlines’ Delhi-Istanbul service continues to be non-stop — the main difference being that IndiGo operates a smaller narrow body aircraft that carries lesser fuel.
To be able to carry more fuel to keep the non-stop status of its Mumbai-Newark flight, Air India reduced the economy baggage allowance by half. Earlier, it used to allow two pieces of 23 kg each — which it reduced to one piece. Carriage of more fuel allows the flight to operate on the longer route without stopping to refuel.
However, while the carriers have been taking longer routes and making fuel stops adding significantly to their costs, air travel analysts suggest this has not had a notable impact on the fares. An Air India official said that every additional hour of flight costs the carrier about Rs 7-8 lakh.
Sharat Dhall, COO (B2C), Yatra.com, “The closure of Pakistani air space has come as an inconvenience to many international carriers impacting all the west bound flights from North India. For the same reason, average flying time for EU carriers coming to Delhi has also gone up by almost two hours.”
“Longer non-stop airlines like Air Canada have recently announced that they would be operating their Toronto flight through Vancouver now, till further notice. However, while the flying hours have increased due to this, the airlines have not spiked fares considerably,” he added.