Why repatriation flights are not being organised from every city in India which has an airport

I’ve been keeping a tab on the first round of repatriation flights being organised, named Vande Bharat by the Government of India. Here is some of the information we have published so far:

Now, repatriation flights in phase one are just a minuscule number. Sixty-four flights to bring back 15,000 people are pedestrian numbers in comparison to the full number of people who want to come back to India but can’t because our borders are closed. So these select flights are the only way for people to get into India as of now.

Why are there so few flights?

While this is not an official account, I would like to believe many things are going here to make things go forth for a mission like this.

There are many moving parts here, and making an aircraft available is just one. One needs to realise there are tonnes of people, Indians who are stuck in various countries. This does not even count for the OCI cardholders, who live and work in India and are not being allowed in for the moment. Unfortunately, these are aircraft, and each is built to capacity, like, the Air India Boeing 787s which can carry only 256 people in one go, even without any physical distancing in place.  To fly each plane, one needs to organise willing crew who are CoVid-19 negative at departure and can work with the risk of contracting CoVid19 on the aircraft.

So when Air India/ Air India Express planned these missions to fly back Indians stuck in other parts of the world, apart from organising these flights, there would be the need to coordinate with the diplomatic missions to ensure the priority list of the people who will get back to India first.

Of course, the Government of India has not included private carriers in the efforts to bring back Indians to India at the moment, which once done, will mean the capacity will officially increase for these repatriation flights.

Why were flights on the outward sectors so less?

Flights being operated right now are not scheduled commercial flights but are being conducted as charters on the Outside India – India legs. A charter is a non-scheduled flight, where permissions are sought from both arriving and departing airports to operate the flights. On the outward leg, some flights are operating as per pre-existing slot allocations, and others are going and non-scheduled times.

I have seen enough, and more queries and frustration on social media about how flights were operated only from Delhi and Mumbai and no other flights were organised from other cities to get people to these cities.

Let me try and put some context to why flights came through from Delhi and Mumbai for Air India largely, and only from south Indian bases for the Gulf. Air India uses Delhi and Mumbai as the base for their aircraft, their 787s and the 777s which were put to use to fly people from London (UK), Singapore and USA. Hence, the crew, including the pilots and cabin crew for these flights would also be based in these cities. Like I explained earlier, you need a willing and able crew to operate a flight.

Secondly, the ability to put some people on the outward flight was a last-minute call. If you go through the various media discussions on these flights, as late as two days before the flight these flights were not bookable on the outward legs. For example, in case of the UK flights, the initial plan was to operate the planes from BOM/DEL to London then fly them back to airports such as Chennai and Hyderabad to drop passengers and then bring the empty planes back to BOM/DEL. In the new version of the plan, all planes would operate via BOM/DEL, and people flying onwards to Hyderabad/Ahmedabad etc. would be transferred on a smaller plane to take them to their eventual airport.

Could Air India have added flights to pick up people from Hyderabad, Bangalore, Calcutta and other places to connect these people to Mumbai/Delhi? Yes. Under normal circumstances. For a last-minute flight, how do you pick if you want to favour the people flying from Bangalore to the USA should be sanctioned, or people flying from Hyderabad be preferred? Or how about fly flights from 10 different airports in India to Delhi or Mumbai and bring people to the eventual flight to the USA? These are decisions which help a few people but not enough scale for Air India to be permitted to bring on a full schedule of flights just to allow a few people to connect on these flights.

People have been throwing numbers that only ten people made it on the Delhi – Singapore flights and only 15 made it on the flight to London. As an economic decision, well, Air India did well. Do realise that any money they could have raised by selling seats on an outward flight is a bonus, as they are already charging a full-fare on the return flight, which, combined with low ATF prices, for now, should make the trip viable for Air India to operate. Also, one should not under-estimate the economic power of Mumbai and Delhi. For instance, the Mumbai – Newark flight which ran on May 9, 2020, in the morning, was SOLD OUT just in 30 minutes. That just means Air India hit the jackpot here despite the fact all the seats were sold at a full-price.

Bottomline

Ultimately, if you are scheduled for these flights in round one through May 15, 2020, there is only one way to get to the airport, by road. These decisions to fly from Mumbai or Delhi, or for instance a Boeing 737 from Kochi or Trivandrum are not being taken randomly. There is a rationale behind it. And while enough people will get the opportunity to fly out on these, there will be always more waiting and losing the opportunity to fly given these are no scheduled commercial flights. So one just has to take it with a pinch of salt, and wait for when they can fly. Or wait for the next round of flights, where hopefully, more cities will be included in the plan.

Comments

  1. WhyAir India do not have any flight from Mumbai to USA. Except one flight went on May 9th.
    The 2nd phase have no flight from Mumbai.

    If passenger flight from Delhi, will they take passenger from Mumbai to Delhi?

  2. I don’t think air India is making any profit on these flights if you calculate the cost vs utilisation. It’s pure need based services for the nation. Wish they could even in normal times!

    • @Subodh, could you substantiate why do you think AI isn’t making any profit on these flights. At least on the India-USA flights, they are offering full-fare $1400 tickets one way in Economy (in normal times you could get $700-800 round trip). And then they are getting flights on both sides sold out. Also, oil prices are low, at least ATF that is. So, they are essentially making a lot of money on those routes.

      • It’s not necessary that they’re saving money on oil right now because it mostly works based on futures contracts so it’s likely that oil is still pretty expensive. But in the coming months cheap oil will help recovery.

        AI is only drawing those kinds of fares on long and already profitable routes such as to the USA. But the fares from places close to India such as Muscat and Indonesia would be pretty low considering people in those places don’t make that much money. Overall AI might still take on a loss but it won’t be as much as we expect it hopefully.

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