How Taliban victory in Afghanistan severely hits India's aviation sector

India is bracing itself for all eventualities and preparing to mount a mission to evacuate its diplomatic staff and stranded nationals in Afghanistan

How Taliban victory in Afghanistan severely hits India's aviation sector
Air India operates an Airbus A320 between India and Afghanistan. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Dipalay Dey

As Afghanistan descends into chaos and anarchy following the Taliban onslaught and takeover of the presidential palace in Kabul, major airlines of the world have scrambled to reroute their flights and avoid the Afghan airspace. This has come with the prospect of significantly increased travel time and airfares, landing the aviation sector in another pickle even as it recovers from the unprecedented battering due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

India operated the last flight between Kabul and New Delhi on August 15, carrying 40 Afghans out of India and returning with 129 passengers. The 160-seater Airbus A320 piloted by Captain Aditya Chopra was asked to hold in the air by the air traffic controllers as it prepared to land in Kabul. After circling over Kabul for the next 90 minutes or so, the plane was finally allowed to land. The Delhi-Kabul flight, which usually takes 105-120 minutes, ended up taking a total of three-and-a-half hours. 

Passengers on the plane recounted the tension that was palpable at the Kabul airport, with soldiers skirting the runways and military aircraft flying in and out, BBC reported. The Air India crew stayed in the cockpit as is the protocol in Kabul and after waiting for over an hour-and-a-half on the tarmac, Flight AI-243 took off for Delhi with 129 passengers on board. Most of the passengers were Afghans fleeing their country. There were also several Indian workers eager to fly out and escape the Taliban. There were some Afghan officials too. There were at least two MPs and a senior advisor to the former president. A passenger on the plane informed that desperation was writ large on the faces of the Afghans who were boarding the plane to fly out to India. 

Air India cancelled the Delhi-Kabul-Delhi flight scheduled for August 16 after the Afghan airspace was declared "uncontrolled" by the Kabul airport. Air India was the only Indian airline operating flights between India and Afghanistan. India has an air bubble agreement with Afghanistan under which carriers of both countries enjoy equal and reciprocal rights to carry passengers both ways.  

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Air India also diverted the San Francisco-Delhi and Chicago-Delhi flights towards Sharjah in the UAE to avoid flying over Afghanistan. Both the flights arriving from the US were planned to make refuelling stops in Sharjah before continuing their journey to India. A Terra Avia flight flying to Delhi from Baku in Azerbaijan had entered the Afghan airspace, but quickly turned around and skirted the Afghan airspace. 

Another Indian long-haul carrier Vistara, which currently operates four weekly flights on the Delhi-London-Delhi route, told PTI, "We have stopped using Afghanistan airspace and are taking an alternate route for our flights to and from London Heathrow. We are closely working with the relevant authorities to monitor and assess the situation and taking necessary steps to ensure the safety of our passengers, staff and aircraft." The airline added that is not, however, cutting the number of flights in the sector.  

Among the foreign carriers, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Emirates, flydubai and Lufthansa have made changes to flights to or over Afghanistan. According to flight-tracking website Flightradar24, United Airlines is operating its India-bound flights through Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, resulting in an increase in flight time by 30 minutes. 

In July, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had introduced new instructions for US airlines operating flights over Afghanistan. The FAA prohibited flights operating below 26,000 feet in the Kabul Flight Information Region, which largely covers Afghanistan, unless operating in and out of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, owing to the risk “posed by extremist/militant activity”.

Countries like Canada, UK, Germany and France had also advised airlines to maintain a minimum altitude of 25,000 feet over Afghanistan, according to the website Safe Airspace, which tracks such aviation warnings. 

Korean Air said that some of its cargo flights were using the Afghan airspace at higher altitudes, but not passenger flights, Al Jazeera reported. The carrier said it was open to shifting its routes if necessary. Taiwan's China Airlines said it was keeping an eye on the developments and would rework its flight paths according to US and EU directives if required.    

As a result of the situation developing in Afghanistan, long haul air traffic to and from India has taken a hit. Covid-related repatriation efforts were also expected to be severely hit. 

"Now there's NOTAM (notice to airmen) issued which says that airspace is uncontrolled. It means that flights to and from Delhi will have to fly towards the tip of Pakistan and go via Iran in order to avoid Afghanistan's airspace. That's an easy 40 minutes to an hour of extra flying. This is going to increase the cost of flying which would, in turn, have a direct impact on the airfares," said aviation expert Vinamra Longani, according to a Business Today report.    

The longer route and the need to avoid the Afghan airspace would mean that all US-bound flights from Delhi would have to make fuel stops in the Middle East. Flights to Europe may not need such a stopover, but would still have to take a detour. Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) makes up 30-40% of the costs of airlines, and more fuel burn would result in markedly greater costs. 

Longani pointed towards another consequence of the Afghan situation: "As aircraft take detours to avoid the Afghan airspace, the airspace over Pakistan is busier than ever. Small windfall in overflight charges for the Pakistanis."          

The last time flights were disrupted over the Indian subcontinent was when Pakistan closed its airspace after Indian fighter jets bombed terrorist camps in Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2019. 

Airlines and governments have become extra careful about flying over conflict zones after two deadly incidents in which civilian aircraft were brought down by surface-to-air missiles. In 2014, a Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Then in 2020, a Boeing 737-800 operated by the Ukraine International Airlines on its way from Tehran to Kyiv and was downed by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) shortly after takeoff from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport, killing all the 176 people on board. 

India is bracing itself for all eventualities and preparing to mount a mission to evacuate its diplomatic staff and stranded nationals in Afghanistan. The C-17 Globemaster military transport aircraft has already been pressed into service and Air India has been asked to keep two planes ready to undertake repatriation missions. National carrier Air India has had a rich history of anchoring the evacuation/repatriation of Indian and even foreign citizens from areas of conflict as well as coronavirus-infested places.   

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A C-17 Globemaster carrying the Indian ambassador to Afghanistan Rudrendra Tandon and 150 other people, including staff from the embassy in Kabul, security personnel and some other stranded Indian nationals landed at the Hindon airbase near Delhi after a brief halt in Jamnagar in Gujarat on August 17. A C-17 had evacuated around 40 people from the Hamid Karzai International (HKI) Airport in Kabul on August 16. India had undertaken a similar exercise to evacuate all its staff from the embassy in Kabul after the Taliban had first captured power in 1996.

Air India helped to evacuate 1.7 lakh stranded Indians from Kuwait in 1990 before the start of the Gulf War, making it a part of the Guinness Book of World Records. Air India had also played a pivotal role in successful evacuation exercises in 1994 (Yemen), 1996 (UAE), 1997 (Saudi Arabia), 2003 (Kuwait and South East Asia), 2004 (tsunami-hit states in India), 2006 (Lebanon, via Cyprus), 2011 (Libya), 2013 (Dehradun), 2014 (Tunisia, Iraq and Jammu and Kashmir), 2015 (Yemen, Nepal and Chennai), 2016 (Andaman) and 2018 (Kerala) before the mega Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) came about.

The hijacked Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 being surrounded by Taliban fighters in Kandahar

From May last year, till August 16 this year, the Air India group has carried 39,57,688 passengers under the VBM repatriation exercise. Even before the start of the VBM, the national carrier had flown to the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan in China, and also to one of the worst Covid hotspots at the start of last year, Italy, to rescue stranded people. Air India also evacuated people from a quarantined ship off the coast of Japan and carried evacuees from Iran to quarantine facilities in India. 

The fall of Kabul signalled a swift end to nearly 20 years of the US-led coalition's presence in the country. The US-led forces had invaded Afghanistan after the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks in 2001, leading to the ouster of the Taliban. The Taliban, however, could not be fully vanquished despite a sustained war of terror and was able to seize control of large swathes of the country after most of the foreign forces had withdrawn. 

The return of the Taliban has heightened fears that Afghanistan may be back under a regressive, brutal and medieval rule, and could again become a safe haven for terrorists and could see several deadly jihadi groups springing into activity. Among the terrorist organisations that the Taliban had sheltered was Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda, which masterminded the 9/11 attacks on the US. According to a BBC report, an estimated 20,000 recruits from all over the world passed through the Al Qaeda terror camps, which had come to be known as the 'university of terror', before dispersing back to their own.   

Indian aviation's experience with the Taliban has been bitter. An Airbus A300 of the erstwhile Indian Airlines from Kathmandu to Delhi with around 180 people on board was hijacked by Pakistani militants on December 24, 1999, and flown to several locations before being made to land in Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. Though the Indian authorities initially hoped for help from the Taliban, those hopes were soon dashed. While some of the passengers had been released in Dubai, and a passenger killed, India could ensure the release of the rest of the passengers after it freed three deadly terrorists, including Maulana Masood Azhar, who would soon form the Jaish-e-Mohammed and orchestrate a series of high-profile terror acts in India, including the Parliament attack (2001), Pathankot and Uri attacks (2016) and Pulwama attack (2019). 

Former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) officer Anand Arni, who was part of the Indian negotiating team in Kandahar, said that the then Taliban civil aviation minister and later the head of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was on the tarmac as Azhar was released, and embraced him "like a long lost friend", The Indian Express reported.

(Cover image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Dipalay Dey)