The US administration has imposed restrictions on Vande Bharat Mission repatriation flights, saying the Indian government has been engaging in discriminatory treatment of American airlines by barring them from operating similar flights.
An order issued by the US department of transport on Monday said the directive would take effect in 30 days. The order said the US side had taken the action after Indian authorities didn’t address American concerns about “restrictive and discriminatory treatment of US carriers” that were first raised on May 19.
The order further said Air India will have to file applications for authorisation for repatriation flights at least 30 days before the date of the proposed flight.
There was no immediate response to the US action from Indian officials.
India plans to operate a total of 96 flights to various cities in the US between June 12 and July 2 under the third phase of Vande Bharat Mission, the country’s largest repatriation programme for Indian nationals stranded abroad because of the Covid-19 pandemic. These flights won’t be affected by the order.
India significantly ramped up flights to the US and Canada in the second and third phases of Vande Bharat Mission to being back stranded citizens, including students and professionals who lost their jobs because of the economic fallout of the pandemic.
The US order said Air India was being notified that it “will be required, effective 30 days after the service date of this Order, to obtain prior approval from the Department…before operating any Third- and/or Fourth-Freedom charter flights to or from the United States”.
“We are taking this action because the Government of India (GoI) has impaired the operating rights of US carriers and has engaged in discriminatory and restrictive practices with respect to US carrier services to and from India,” it said.
Air India is currently the only foreign air carrier from India that has authorisation from the US department of transport to conduct operations to and from the US with its own aircraft and crew. Air India’s permit authorises it to conduct scheduled and charter rights.
The order contended the Indian side had imposed restrictions that prevent US carriers from making full use of charter rights as they have been barred from conducting passenger charter operations “involving direct sales to individual passengers or through other distribution systems”. It added the US hasn’t placed any limitations on Air India’s charter operations.
Air India has been conducting repatriation flights to the US since May 18. “On May 19, 2020, an official from the Department [of transport] advised Air India of the Department’s concerns that some, if not all, of Air India’s so-called evacuation charters have gone beyond true evacuations (at least on the India to the United States segments) and involved sales to any member of the general public able to enter the United States,” the order said.
Delta Air Lines had sought permission from India on May 26 to perform repatriation charter services but had not received approval, the order said. The order also accused Air India of using the repatriation charter flights “as a way of circumventing the GoI-imposed prohibition of all scheduled services” since March 25.
“This situation, in which Indian airlines are permitted to perform services pursuant to their rights under the Agreement while US carriers are not, creates a competitive disadvantage for US carriers vis-à-vis Indian carriers…,” it said, adding the US embassy had first registered its objections with the Indian government on May 28.