IN A move that brings relief to Indian and foreign airlines, and travellers, Pakistan opened its airspace fully in the early hours of Tuesday, five months after closing it on February 26 following the IAF strike at a terror camp in Balakot.
In Delhi, government officials described it as a “strategic move” and indicated the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough between the two countries. The move comes days after Pakistan’s civil aviation authority reportedly intimated Indian officials that the curbs would stay in place until India withdrew its fighter jets from forward positions.
Last Thursday, Pakistan’s Aviation Secretary Shahrukh Nusrat, who is also Director General of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), had informed the Senate Standing Committee on Aviation that the Indian government had approached it to open the airspace. He said Pakistan responded by saying that India must first withdraw its “fighter planes placed forward”, PTI reported.
On July 12, Pakistan had issued a NOTAM, or Notice to Airmen, extending the airspace ban — for the fifth time — till July 26. However, the NOTAM was cancelled early Tuesday effective 12.38 am IST. Air traffic controllers issue NOTAMs to inform pilots and route planners about conditions of an airport or airspace, including restrictions. “With immediate effect, Pakistan airspace is open for all type of civil traffic on published ATS (Air Traffic Service) routes,” the NOTAM read.
Tuesday’s decision is expected to reduce flight times by around 70-80 minutes for airlines that earlier used Pakistan’s airspace for transit, and avoid the need for an additional refuelling stop.
Several carriers, including Air India and some foreign airlines, flying to Delhi from locations such as Kuwait, Helsinki, Frankfurt, Paris and San Francisco were among the first to begin using the airspace resulting in these flights arriving as much as 90 minutes ahead of expected arrival time.
However, some airlines, such as Emirates, continued on the elongated routes on sectors like Delhi-Dubai even after the relaxation was announced.
Flag-carrier Air India said the move is expected to result in higher aircraft utilisation and reduced crew requirement. “The flying time for long-haul flights towards the US had increased by 90 minutes, and additional fuel was needed. US-bound flights had to be stopped in Vienna, where crew was changed and it took three hours,” an Air India spokesperson said.
“As Pakistan airspace is now open, aircraft utilisation will go up while crew requirement will come down by 25 per cent. Flight operation cost for US-bound flights may come down by Rs 20 lakh one-way, and for Europe-bound flights by Rs 5 lakh. From today (Tuesday) night, flight operations may be on original schedule as before closure of Pakistani airspace,” the spokesperson said.
Op costs will drop
The closure of routes affected hundreds of east-west flights flying over the sub- continent but west-bound flights from airports in northern India were the worst affected. Together, Indian carriers lost over Rs 550 crore due to the airspace restrictions.
Indian carriers together lost over Rs 550 crore due to the restrictions. A chunk of this was for Air India, which 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.
“We are pleased with the latest development relating to the opening of the Pakistan airspace as announced today. IndiGo flights flying via Pakistan will operate as normal after all regulatory clearances by the concerned authorities,” IndiGo said in a statement. Similarly, SpiceJet, which was only Indian airline flying the Delhi-Kabul route had cancelled the flight.
Given that additional fuel burn had resulted in fare increases on affected routes, sectoral analysts expect things to normalise. “Re-opening of Pakistan airspace is a welcome announcement that brings huge relief to the aviation industry, which has borne the brunt of extra fuel costs owing to the forced diversion and increased flying time to and from India. We can expect airfares on the effected routes to come down as the flying time reduces and goes back to normal,” said Sharat Dhall, COO (B2C), Yatra.com.
After first shutting its airspace fully, Pakistan later relaxed the restrictions on overflying the country partially — out of the total 11 air routes in Pakistani territory, it opened up two since March. One of these is the westbound waypoint over the Arabian Sea towards Karachi, Hingol, Gwadar, and the other 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., were the worst affected.
Despite the opening up of Pakistani airspace, international airlines are still incurring extended flight times due to avoidance of a part of Iranian airspace after the US Federal Aviation Administration, on June 20, issued an advisory to US-registered planes to avoid flying over the region. This was due to heightened tensions between Iran and the US following the Iranian Revolutionary Guard shooting down a US surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz.