Aircraft queue up on the tarmac before taking off at Mumbai airport. File photo: AFP

India is taking a cautious approach toward resuming international flights amid a renewed surge of Covid-19 cases. The country’s aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, has extended the ban on international flights until April 30.

However, the regulator clarified: “International scheduled flights may be allowed on selected routes by the competent authority on a case-to-case basis.” It also said the suspension does not affect the operations of international all-cargo flights and those specifically approved by it.

International flights were suspended a year ago on March 23, 2020, ahead of the nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the virus.

But since May last year, special international flights were allowed under the Vande Bharat Mission to bring back Indians stranded abroad, and from July onward India started entering into bilateral “air bubble” arrangements with select countries.

An air bubble allows the operation of special international flights between the two countries. So far, air bubble pacts have been signed with 27 countries, including the US, the UK, the UAE, Kenya, Bhutan and France.

Under the Vande Bharat Mission launched on May 6, India has brought back 6.76 million stranded Indian passengers, according to the civil aviation ministry. The mission is now in its 10th phase.

State-owned Air India and several other private domestic airlines including IndiGo and SpiceJet have been operating flights under the mission. This has benefited Indians based in Gulf countries, the UK, Germany, France, the US, Canada, Nepal, Singapore, Malaysia and Kenya.

Even before the launch of this mission, India brought back its citizens from Wuhan, Tehran and Rome, which were badly affected during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Domestic flights

India had resumed domestic flight operations with strict safety protocols on May 25 last year after two months of bans. The civil aviation ministry initially allowed airlines to fly only 33% of their routes of pre-Covid levels. It was later scaled up a couple of times and now they can operate 80% of their flights and the government plans to increase it to 100% soon.

After the resumption of flights, February 28 recorded the highest number of passengers on board flights in a single day. The country’s airports handled a total of 313,668 passengers on 2,353 flights on that day.

The government had imposed a price band of an upper and lower limit to prevent airlines from profiteering. However, in this calendar year, it has increased the lower fare band two times, taking into account the rise in price of aviation fuel.

The latest hike was done last week and Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri tweeted: “There has been a continuous rise in price of ATF (aviation fuel) so it has been decided to increase the lower fare band by 5% keeping the upper fare band unchanged.” The first one happened in February.

According to the Indian Oil Corporation, aviation fuel prices stood at 60,261.16 rupees per kiloliter in New Delhi on March 16, up from 50,978.78 rupees per kiloliter on January 1. Jet fuel accounts for about a fourth of expenses for major domestic airlines.

Fuel prices in India have risen considerably due to a hardening of global crude prices and heavy taxation. The excise duty levied by the federal government and the value-added tax charged by state governments now accounts for about two-thirds of gasoline and diesel retail prices.

Though there is a growing demand to lower taxes, as high fuel prices have an inflationary impact, the federal and state governments are reluctant to agree. They are using revenue gains on retail fuel to boost spending to counter the Covid-19 induced slowdown.

Their usual sources of revenue from the goods and services tax, the corporate tax and income tax have fallen due to the near-total closure of business activities during the lockdowns.