India sees red after UAE carriers violate air bubble conditions

India has allowed some leeway in the functioning of air bubbles but contravention of the pacts beyond these reasonable liberties would attract scrutiny

India sees red after UAE carriers violate air bubble conditions
Representative image of the Dubai airport. Image courtesy: Twitter/@HamdanMohammed

Some UAE airlines have aroused the ire of the Indian civil aviation authorities for breaching the conditions of the air bubble agreement between the two countries. These airlines had carried unauthorised transit passengers from India, which means that those passengers had travelled to destinations beyond the UAE. 

“We are in receipt of reports of violation of the provisions of air bubble arrangement by UAE carriers by carrying unauthorised transit passengers,” the Indian ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) wrote in a letter to the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) of the UAE, according to a Hindustan Times report. 

“We would further request you inform the UAE carriers to ensure that the revised provisions of the air bubble arrangement are followed in true spirit,” the MoCA letter added. 

Aircraft parked at the Dubai airport. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Dmitriy Pichugin

India had started air bubbles with the objective of resuming international air traffic at a time when scheduled commercial international air travel is suspended in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. These air bubbles are bilateral in nature, which means that the carriers of India and those of each partner country enjoy reciprocal benefits, while also being governed by similar restrictions. 

One of the important restrictions in this regard is that airlines cannot carry transit passengers. Therefore, under every air bubble pact, the airlines of India and the partner country can carry passengers only between India and that country and not beyond. India currently has air bubble agreements with 24 countries. The pact with the UK is, however, suspended for the time being in view of the detection of a mutant strain of the coronavirus in that country and the travel restrictions imposed as a result. 

The UAE carriers may have violated this provision with an eye on profits. 

Civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri said during a press conference in New Delhi on Tuesday (December 29), "There have been some complaints. I saw, for instance, in newspapers a letter which had been written apparently by the DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) to the DGCA's counterpart in some other country telling it that it had come across cases of violation of the air bubbles. Now DGCA has come across cases and it has taken them up, but how far and how widespread these are I don't know. But I can tell you that we are very clear. If you travel, you travel from point to point."

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However, Puri added a significant caveat. He pointed out that India has still not established air bubbles with places like Latin America. So the government has decided to allow transit passengers headed for Latin American countries, for instance. "So it's not that the carrier concerned has to take passengers (for) where the carrier is based, but also maybe for Latin America," Puri said. 

Director General of Civil Aviation Arun Kumar said that the Indian authorities are allowing transit passengers for countries with which India does not yet have air bubbles. However, this is not allowed on a very big scale and largely, the bubble movements are point-to-point, he added.

  R to L: DGCA Arun Kumar, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola, Air India CMD Rajiv Bansal and AAI Chairman Arvind Singh at a press conference in New Delhi on December 29. Image courtesy: Twitter/@MoCA_GoI

"There are places which are not connected by bubble arrangements, for example, Israel. There is a whole lot of people going to Israel for jobs. In such cases, we are allowing them to go. Similarly, for going to Latin America and other such connections, we are allowing people to go," Kumar explained. 

Kumar furthermore said that there have been occasional violations of air bubble agreements and in such cases, the DGCA has pulled up the airlines concerned. But he pointed towards a challenge in ensuring strict adherence to the bubble conditions. "Sometimes it happens that some person is travelling from here to Dubai, and (for) two days he stays there and he has to go (to) somewhere (else). In such cases we cannot intervene because Dubai or Doha is also a destination in a sense," Kumar said.   

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According to Dr Lalit Kant, former head of the department of epidemiology at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the importance of restricting air bubbles to point-to-point travel is to ensure that the passengers can be tracked easily, and so that appropriate action can be taken if some of the passengers are found to be carrying the coronavirus, the HT reported.  

An official quoted by the daily pointed out that the airlines of the UAE have been carrying hundreds of passengers from India every day since an air bubble was set up between the two countries in July. In fact, the Dubai to Delhi and Mumbai routes have become some of the busiest in the world even during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The MoCA website states that transit passengers are indeed allowed to be carried from India to the UAE, but it is restricted to any Indian/Nepalese/Bhutanese national destined for the UAE or any country in South America or Africa only and holding a valid visa of the destination country. Apart from that, UAE nationals and Immigration and Checkpoints Authority-approved UAE residents can be carried from India under the air bubble arrangement. However, contravention of the bubble conditions beyond these reasonable leeways is what would attract scrutiny by the Indian authorities. 

The Indian carrier Air India Express had faced punitive action in Dubai in September this year. The Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA) had banned Air India Express for 15 days for carrying a Covid-positive passenger for the second time. The order was later revoked.