The decision of the national carrier to cancel three Air India Express flights from Thiruvananthapuram International Airport to Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Dubai next month has come as a setback to the Non-Resident Keralites (NoRKs) who were preparing to come home from these countries during the forthcoming Onam season.

Along with this, the decision of the private airlines operating from the Gulf sector to Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode to hike the airfare to Kerala drastically has come as a big blow to the hundreds of NoRKs.

The NoRKs and travel agents have criticised the timing of increasing the fare from the Gulf and the decision of the AIE to cancel the flights. The only solace is that fares from Kerala had not been hiked.

Air India cancelled the AIE flight IX 535/536 Thiruvananthapuram - Sharjah - Thiruvananthapuram of Tuesdays from August 3 to 27, IX 537/538 Thiruvananthapuram – Abu Dhabi - Thiruvananthapuram of Sundays from August 1 to 27 and the IX 539/540 Thiruvananthapuram - Dubai - Thiruvananthapuram of Sundays from August 1 to 27 citing operational reasons. Many who had booked tickets in advance in these flights have to run around to get a seat in any other airlines.

Shortage of crew

However, airline sources said the decision was taken in view of the acute shortage of crew faced by the low-cost carrier and the regulations of the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). The cabin crew were being allowed to put in duty hours of only 125 hours a month and 1,000 hours annually. The AIE had started recruitment process for filling the vacancies of the cabin crew with Kochi being one of the venues for the walk-in interview.

With these, the number of weekly flights operated by AIE from Thiruvananthapuram to Sharjah had come down from four to three, to Abu Dhabi from seven to six and to Dubai from seven to six.

NoRKs and the travel agents alleged that the decision to cancel the AIE flights was aimed at helping the private airlines operating in the sector. With Onam falling in the last week of August and holiday for schools in the Gulf countries, hundreds flying back home would be affected.

The sources said the airline would hike the fare in the Kerala-Gulf sector after Onam season as there would be a heavy rush of the NoRKs returning after the holidays. However, the sources said the fares of AIE would be the cheapest in the sector even after Onam season. AIE was offering seats from here to Muscat on August 25 for Rs.5,518 compared to Rs.9,047 in private airlines.

The decision of the national carrier reflected the neglect meted out towards Thiruvananthapuram, said president of the Kerala Association of Travel Agents, K.V. Muralidharan. The cancellation of AIE flights to and from the State capital is to help the private airlines as it is the peak season in the Gulf sector. “There is no connecting Air India flight from here to the U.S., Europe, Gulf countries and the Far East,” he said.

Air India which was operating flights and having monopoly in the Gulf sector is now confined to operating flights from Thiruvananthapuram to Riyadh and Dammam in Saudi Arabia. The flights to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Sharjah, Doha, Bahrain and Salalah are done by the AIE. In addition, the national carrier operates IC coded flights from the capital to Male and Sharjah.