New Delhi: It has been 17 days since Pakistan announced the closure of its airspace, a day after India launched airstrikes on a Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camp in Balakot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Since the 27 February announcement, flights from airlines across the world have had to be rerouted and cancelled, with data from international flight tracker Flightradar24.com indicating that the closure is affecting around 400 flights daily. Air India is the worst-hit of the airlines due to this closure.
Last week, Pakistan began opening its airspace partially, but is currently allowing only flights bound for its own cities to come into its airspace.
India’s flag-carrier flies 33 weekly services to the US and 66 to Europe, most of which have had to be diverted or cancelled since a majority of its routes to Europe and North America overfly Pakistan.
Some flights from Delhi to the US are badly hit, since they’re ultra-long haul flights in any case, and have had to be diverted over Mumbai and then northwards over the Arabian Sea via UAE airspace. As a result, technical stops (for refuelling and crew change) were first introduced via Sharjah, UAE, and now via Vienna, Austria. The Delhi-Washington DC flight, meanwhile, now has a stopover at Mumbai.
The airline’s spokesperson Praveen Bhatnagar confirmed that “flight timings have been increased by over three hours” due to these reasons.
The inbound flights from the US remain non-stop, but still take the more circuitous route to avoid Pakistani airspace.
The Air India flight between Mumbai and New York, launched in December 2018, has also been suspended. Instead, it has been combined with the Mumbai-Newark-Mumbai flight from 16 March to 31 May 2019, according to an update from the airline.
Another newly-launched flight, between Delhi and Najaf in southern Iraq, is also cancelled, as are the Delhi-Madrid and Madrid-Delhi, Delhi-Birmingham and Birmingham-Delhi, and Delhi-Amritsar-Birmingham and Birmingham-Amritsar-Delhi flights.
The other non-stop flights operated by Air India have been rerouted till 30 April.
Thanks to the cancelled flights, longer routes and refuelling stops, the already-ailing Air India has been hit by revenue loss.
Spokesperson Bhatnagar confirmed this, saying: “We are definitely undergoing a loss in this situation, but we haven’t calculated how much we have lost financially since 27 February.”
A report in the Business Standard estimated that Air India was losing Rs 3 crore every day, and also hinted that the shift from Sharjah to Vienna for the US-bound flights was to minimise the rising costs. However, Bhatnagar dismissed the report, insisting that the losses had not been calculated yet.
SpiceJet’s Kabul flight
Private carrier SpiceJet, meanwhile, has had to cancel its Delhi-Kabul-Delhi flight every day, as Pakistan keeps extending the air-space closure.
Since this is the only direct flight between India and Afghanistan, any passenger has to take a one-stop or two-stop flight. The total time in transit has gone up from two-and-a-half hours to a minimum of 16.5 hours, with a minimum round-trip price of nearly Rs 50,000, nearly three times as expensive as the SpiceJet flight.
Asked if the airline was facing a loss, SpiceJet spokesperson Tushar said: “We haven’t undergone any losses so far as we just had a single flight.”
Other carriers also affected
According to Flightradar24.com data, a majority of flights originating in South-East Asia and bound for Europe are now flying over southern India instead of passing over Kolkata. Once they clear Pakistani airspace over the Arabian Sea, they turn northwards and rejoin their usual routes.
Flights to destinations in Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan are worst-affected, because of their proximity to Pakistani airspace.
Initially, many airlines, including Saudi Arabian Airlines, Thai Airways, Malaysian Airlines, Emirates and Singapore Airlines, cancelled their flights. However, most of them are now back up, forced to take the circuitous route
European airlines like Air France, KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa, Aeroflot and Finnair, as well as United Airlines of the US and Air Canada have also had to divert their flights.