Why India may not restart regular international air travel any time soon

This latest extension means that scheduled commercial international passenger flights have remained suspended in India for more than a year

Why India may not restart regular international air travel any time soon
A VBM flight operated by Air India. Image courtesy: Twitter/@HardeepSPuri

India extended the ban on regular international air travel by one more month. The suspension would stay in force till July 31, 2021, though it is widely believed that we are nowhere near the end of such restrictions, as the world continues to stay in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic with the spectre of a third Covid wave looming large. 

"In partial modification of the circular dated 26-06-2020, the competent authority has further extended the validity of circular issued on the subject cited above (travel and visa restrictions related to Covid-19) regarding scheduled international commercial passenger services to/from India till 2359 hrs IST of 31st July, 2021, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said in a circular dated June 30. The regulator added that the restrictions would not be applicable to international all-cargo operations and specifically approved flights. Importantly, international scheduled flights may be allowed on selected routes on a case-to-case basis by the competent authority. 

International cargo flights are regularly being operated to transport essential Covid relief materials, like oxygen concentrators and vaccines, which have provided India with the lifeline it required in the face of a severe oxygen and vaccine shortage, which has made its Covid battle all the more difficult. 

Cargo flights had also been operated when the pandemic broke out last year and a nationwide lockdown was imposed. These flights transported essential supplies abroad and also picked up supplies for India. Cargo flights had also been mounted by Indian carriers to send vaccines across the world as part of the government's diplomatic strategy. 

This latest extension means that scheduled commercial international passenger flights have remained suspended in India for more than a year since March 23, 2020, in order to curb the spread of the pandemic.

However, India has conducted some international air travel in the form of repatriation flights under the mega Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) and even before that. India has also entered into bilateral air bubble arrangements with 27 countries (Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Canada, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Iraq, Japan, Kenya, Kuwait, Maldives, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, Seychelles, Tanzania, UAE, US, UK, Ukraine and Uzbekistan). Under these agreements, the carriers of India and the partner country have equal and reciprocal rights to carry passengers either way.  

VBM arrivals to India. Image courtesy: Twitter/@HardeepSPuri 

Even as India has continued to conduct some international air traffic, numerous countries have sought to keep flyers from India completely at arm's length since the time the second Covid wave caused mayhem in India, with more than three-four lakh daily new cases being reported in April-May. The ban on flights from India by several countries has affected both the VBM and air bubble flights. Sri Lanka had, in fact, postponed the planned air bubble agreement with India, citing the latter's Covid woes. 

However, the marked improvement in the Covid situation in India has still not enthused many countries to fully embrace flyers from India, and several restrictions exist even when flyers from India have started to be accepted now in a limited way. The world seems to be still scared of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, first detected in India, which is held to be more transmissible, leading to more hospitalisations and is also believed to reduce the efficacy of vaccines.      

Also read: India extends ban on regular international air travel again by a month

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri had said last year that India's decision to resume scheduled commercial international air travel depended on other countries' readiness to accept flights. With flights from India being prohibited by many countries, the resumption of regular international passenger air travel by India seems to be in jeopardy.

The repeated extension of regular international air traffic by the Indian government, that too, by a month every time, has tended to make it too predictable and hence, taken for granted. However, one of the reasons for extensions by small blocks of one month could be that the Indian government wants to keep a close watch on the situation as it develops and be primed for a resumption of regular international air travel as soon as the conditions turn conducive.

Countries have been giving the idea of vaccine passports a good thought, with China, from where the coronavirus had originated, becoming the first country to introduce a Covid vaccine passport for its citizens, The Times of India reported in March. The passport is available in digital and paper formats and provides information on a traveller's vaccination status, recent Covid test results and recent antibody test results. It builds on the idea of the International Air Transport Association's (IATA) Travel Pass, which is largely seen as one of the keys to reopening borders safely.

It is a mobile app/digital health pass that helps air passengers conveniently and securely manage their travel in line with government requirements for Covid-19 testing and vaccination. In other words, it helps flyers to ensure that pre-travel tests and vaccination records fulfil the requirements of their destinations.

The IATA Travel Pass was successfully tested on its first international flight onboard a Singapore Airlines plane to the London-Heathrow airport. The IATA was reported by PTI to be in consultation with the Indian civil aviation authorities and carriers as well for using the pass in India. 

IATA Travel Pass has promised to simplify international air travel. Image courtesy: Twitter/@emirates

Other vaccine passports include IBM's New York State’s Excelsior Pass, which uses blockchain to communicate with state vaccination records or with health providers; Airbus's Tripset digital passports; AirAsia's Scan2Fly, developed for select routes, including Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Singapore; the New York-based CommonPass, which has partnered with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to launch trials with carriers like Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic; and other country and airline-specific passes. According to the IATA website, 36 global airlines are trialling the IATA Travel Pass and this includes names like Etihad, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Saudia, Virgin Atlantic, Qantas, Avianca, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Turkish Airlines and others.  

The IATA Travel Pass and similar digital vaccine passports bring together all the necessary Covid-related information under one roof and help in reducing hassles not just for the passengers, but also for the airlines, immigration staff and governments. It has become an increasingly credible way of verifying a traveller's Covid status when Covid-19 tests and vaccinations are bound to become integral parts of air travel in the foreseeable future, though the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has argued against vaccination as a prerequisite for international travel.

Also read: Despite India's hesitation, former aviation minister bats for Covid vaccine passports

India has been wary of vaccine passports. The country has so far been able to fully vaccinate only about 6% of its population, and fears that insisting on vaccine passports would be discriminatory, according to an NDTV report. India made its disapproval known at the G7 meeting of health ministers on June 4, saying that the rate of vaccination in developing countries is far lower than that in developed countries, and there are unaddressed issues related to equitable and affordable access, and supply and distribution of safe and effective vaccines. 

India' however, has seen the emergence of HOI, a digital travel app for flyers. The GMR-run Delhi and Hyderabad airports have partnered with the passenger engagement platform HOI to assist passengers at every stage of their travel, right from their homes to the end destinations, ensuring safe and contactless travel. Importantly, the app also provides information on the location of Covid-19 testing facilities at the airport and the packages offered.

Former Civil Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu had called on the government to allow fully-vaccinated people to travel freely to restore normalcy in aviation and tourism, which have been two of the sectors worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

With the Covid numbers reducing considerably, India would do well to align with a globally recognised digital vaccine passport regime, to convince governments around the world to freely accept flyers from India again soon. With a robust digital passport system going, India would also be able to resume regular international flights itself without the fear of inviting another Covid wave, so to speak.  

Already the US and UK have been talking about vaccine passports for letting their citizens travel abroad or for accepting flyers from other countries. The European Union (EU) has reportedly been thinking on the same lines. Italy, Iceland, Greece and Spain are opening their borders to people who have been vaccinated or who have recently tested negative for Covid.

According to a report in The Print, India is indeed in talks with the Portugal-based multinational technology firm Vision-Box to develop mobile health passports. No formal decision has been reached yet, but if this 'passport' becomes a reality, it may well be linked to the DigiYatra platform, which was launched in 2018 to promote paperless air travel using facial recognition and other technologies. 

However, what seems to pour cold water over India's efforts to make use of vaccine passports is the fact that India's homemade Covaxin is recognised not even by 10 countries, and Covishield, the other vaccine being used in India, had been excluded from European Union's Green Pass. 

Flyers bound for India gathered for a VBM flight from Tokyo. Image courtesy: Twitter/@IndianEmbTokyo

On July 1, however, eight European countries -- Germany, Slovenia, Austria, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Spain and Switzerland -- added Covishield to their list of approved vaccines, The Economic Times reported. This came after India said that it would recognise the EU's digital Covid certificate as a matter of reciprocity, but would not accept it unless the EU did the same for Covishield and Covaxin. India had raised the matter with the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and France and also requested individual countries to consider extending exemptions to flyers vaccinated with Covaxin or Covishield. 

Unless India is able to convince the World Health Organisation (WHO) and countries around the world about the efficacy of the Indian vaccines, or India okays another global vaccine, vaccine passports and travel passes for international travel may not be a feasible idea for India. One has to remember that still there are several countries in the 27-member EU that needs to be convinced about the Indian vaccines.

Even if India widely adopts Sputnik V or any other vaccine, for example, there would still be a large chunk of the population, already jabbed with Covaxin or Covisield, who would find international travel difficult. In such a case, there may be still some time to go before scheduled commercial international air travel is fully normalised. 

For the record, India reported less than 50,000 daily new cases of Covid again on July 1. The active case count in the country declined to 5,23,257, constituting only 1.72% of the total cases. Daily recoveries continued to outnumber daily new cases for the 49th consecutive day.