India has proposed establishing air travel “bubbles” with several countries including the United States, Germany, and France on the lines of “air bridges” or “Covid-safe travel zones” that have been conceptualised by countries that have managed to fully or partially contain the outbreak. The Ministry of Civil Aviation is negotiating the setting up of travel bubbles to restart scheduled international passenger flights — however, a number of factors could end up pricking the bubble even before it is formed.
So, what are travel bubbles?
While quarantining and testing of passengers have universal appeal, some jurisdictions are talking of “bubbles” or “air bridges” joining states that have largely eliminated the virus, and who trust in each other’s testing and case numbers.
According to The Economist, Australia and New Zealand could lead the way with a proposed “Covid-safe travel zone”, or the trans-Tasman bubble. Small countries in the Pacific including Fiji and the Cook Islands, which have kept the virus at bay, could join in, with the zone being expanded to other jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.
The Baltic countries of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia too have created a bubble allowing free travel among themselves, while restricting outsiders.
The concept of a travel bubble, or an air bridge, is reciprocal in nature, which means that both sides — the departure point and the arrival point — have to be on board. It also means that travel restrictions such as quarantining or testing of passengers have to be discarded among the countries in the bubble.
And what is India’s proposal?
Responding to allegations by the US government of distorting the level playing field by allowing Air India to fly commercial passengers on outbound legs of repatriation flights, the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation said that it was looking at the possibility of establishing bilateral arrangements. This was on account of moving away from controlled and managed aviation evacuation of Indian citizens in different parts of the world and foreign nationals from India.
“As we contemplate further opening up in response to demands, we are looking at the prospect of establishing individual bilateral bubbles, India-US, India-France, India-Germany, India-UK. These are all destinations where demand for travel has not diminished. Final decisions pursuant to negotiations are expected to be taken soon,” the Ministry said in an official statement.
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What could be the hurdles for this proposal?
The finalising of travel bubbles could be a huge step in the direction of resuming scheduled international air travel, which has been suspended for three months now. But a lot depends on the destination country’s perception of India in terms of being a Covid threat.
In the last 24 hours alone, India reported 465 deaths and 15,968 cases as the number of Covid-19 infections reached 4,56,183, including 14,476 casualties and 1,83,022 active cases as per the Johns Hopkins University global coronavirus tracker dashboard. India is now fourth on the dashboard, with only the United States, Brazil, and Russia having reported a larger number of cases.
Also, the Indian government’s move to allow outbound commercial travel on flights meant to repatriate Indian citizens without allowing reciprocal benefits to some countries like the US and France could have resulted in sentiments turning sour in these countries.
With the order restricting Air India’s repatriation flights on Monday, threatening to suspend the third and fourth freedoms of flying, the US has already tightened the policy on flying from India. France and the UAE too, have forced Air India to fly to Paris without any passengers.
And then, there are the risks of rushing in too fast.
New Zealand, which had successfully controlled the spread of coronavirus with zero fresh cases for weeks, relaxed the restrictions on travel into the country, only to almost immediately start recording new cases. Following this, the country tightened border restrictions again.
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Similarly, several European Union countries that wanted to reopen travel to revive their economies are considering blocking American citizens from entering their borders because they deem the US to be risky, The New York Times reported.
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