Is the air bubble pact strengthening India-UAE partnership?

December 7, 2020 11:01 AM

Air bubble agreement with the UAE has kept airlines afloat, businesses alive, and jobs secure

air india offerhe rescheduled travel should be completed within 31st December 21, Air India said today (December 22, 2020).(Reuters Image)

By Ehtesham Shahid

A deserted looking Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose airport in Kolkata, late evening on November 30, told the story of the uncertainty surrounding international travel. COVID-19 had not just kept air travellers grounded, it also seemed to be pushing the invariably bustling duty-free zones out of business.

Though, the sleepy terminal burst to life following the announcement of flight FZ 4016, which was supposed to fly over 150 passengers to Dubai. Amid the continuing gloomy travel season, this was a flight route that had survived as part of the Air Bubble agreement between India and the UAE. In essence, flights such as these have somehow kept airlines afloat, businesses alive, and jobs secure.

According to the Ministry of Civil Aviation, the Air Bubble arrangement with the UAE is valid till December 31, 2020. This is despite an announcement, on November 26, to continue a ban on all international flights till December 31. The Air Bubble – an arrangement for managing air travel outside of normal circumstances – was in place till October 31 and was subsequently extended to December 31.

Similar agreements have been signed with 18 other countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Germany, France, Japan, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Canada, Iraq, Kenya, Oman, and Ukraine. Such transport bubbles are generally reciprocal, meaning airlines from both countries enjoy similar benefits.

In the case of India and the UAE, this has become a lifeline for many. First, it ensured that passengers no longer needed air travel registration between the two countries, usually a logistical nightmare. That also facilitated direct bookings with the airlines.

The announcement eased pressure on the embassies and consulates overwhelmed by a large number of desperate Indians looking to return home. The chaos following lockdowns could be imagined from the fact that the Indian consulate in Dubai received as many as 600,000 calls for repatriation-related queries during the height of the pandemic.

A similar number of people registered for travelling back to India. To accommodate the request for help, the Consulate decided, on August 1, to remain open during all holidays (including Fridays and Saturdays, weekends in this part of the world) to address emerging requirements. The arrangement will continue till December 31, 2020.

Amid otherwise stationary bilateral engagements, a virtual new normal, this small yet significant air corridor has defined the India-UAE partnership, which has endured for a long time and has gathered considerable strength in recent years. This corridor has also become a lifeline for Indian workers looking to return to work in countries such as Saudi Arabia.

According to Indian officials in the UAE, over 200,000 Indian citizens have travelled into the country, while more than 620,000 have travelled to India since the launch of the India-UAE air travel bubble. This corridor has witnessed an average of 8,000 people travelling to and from the UAE to India every day.

Speaking to Khaleej Times in October, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said as many as 635,000 passengers have travelled to India from UAE on Vande Bharat flights and that more UAE-India flights if Covid-19 cases drop.

Civil aviation also came up during the India-UAE High-Level Joint Task Force on Investments, the details of which were announced by the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi on 3 November 2020.

“In recognizing the critical importance of civil aviation to the economies of both states, both sides agreed that the two civil aviation authorities should continue to work together on a priority basis, for their mutual benefit, to ensure speedy normalization of air transport operations between the two countries,” a statement released following the meeting said.

India may have signed Air Bubble agreements with several countries, but the one with the UAE has been among the most critical, coming in as a ray of hope in gloomy times. More importantly, it appears to be strengthening the already strong bilateral ties.

(The author is Editor at TRENDS Research & Advisory. He tweets @2sham. Views are personal.)

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