Thousands of passengers travelling this summer are likely to face longer flights and pay higher airfares due to the closure of Pakistan airspace, in place for more than a month now after the Balakot airstrike. Among the worst affected are airlines from West and Central Asia as their proximity to India and Pakistan means that they have to now take a much longer route to comply with the ban.
Passenger demand between Kabul and Delhi is now a tenth of what it used to be before the ban as airfares have more than doubled – increasing from ₹18,000 to ₹42,000 for a return journey, according to the Ariana Afghan Airlines’ India head, Barun Birla.
The fall in demand is despite SpiceJet and Air India cancelling their flights to Kabul and is an indication that a vast majority of those who travel from Afghanistan to India for medical treatment may be forced to delay their travel plans.
“The airspace closure forced the flights between Delhi and Kabul to take a longer route. As a result the flying time increased to five hours (from 2 hours and 10 minutes) and the airfare doubled. Considering the fact that a large number of Afghans travel to Delhi for treatment, this has caused the cost of travelling for them to go up,” Mohammad Khairullah Azad, Charge d’affaires, Afghanistan Embassy told The Hindu .
With summer vacations around the corner, students returning from India will also be badly affected, he added.
Goods exported from the country are also now twice as expensive, according to Janaga Naweed from the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce.
“For every dollar earned, we are spending $2. Costs have increased in all areas - fuel, crew rotation, passenger handling, catering and other costs,” Kazakhstan carrier Air Astana’s Regional General Manger for Gulf and Indian subcontinent Karlygash Omurbayeva said in an e-mail interview.
The airline now takes 8 hours from Delhi to Almaty as well as Astana, instead of 3 hours and 50 minutes and 4 hours and 30 minutes, respectively. Air Astana has also seen passengers cancelling their bookings because of the long flying hours during peak tourist season, though it has decided to absorb the increase in costs instead of raising airfares. Air Astana had 11 flights per week to Delhi, which are now down to seven and may be slashed further.
“We have tolerated these very expensive diversions for over a month, in the hope they would prove temporary. But we cannot continue to bear these heavy financial losses and have decided to suspend Astana-Delhi-Astana and a few Almaty-Delhi-Almaty flights in April. Furthermore, we are considering cancelling some more flights if the situation remains unchanged.”
“Everyone is affected badly by this decision,” said UAE Ambassador to India Ahmed Al-Banna, adding flights to Abu Dhabi and Dubai had become an hour longer and seen a 25% increase in fuel costs. “This is an internal matter between India and Pakistan, but I hope this will be resolved soon,” he added.
A representative of Russian airline Aeroflot said the increase in flight duration by two hours has resulted in a mismatch with “a vast majority of connecting flights”, hitting transit passengers. Many air travellers flying to Europe take Aeroflot’s one-stop flights via Moscow because of attractive airfares offered by it.
Travellers to and from Uzbekistan have seen more than two-fold increase in their flight duration – from three hours to seven or eight hours - causing many to miss their connecting flights, according to an industry source.
An airline executive from Iran’s Mahan Air said the change in flying time has resulted in difficulty in acquiring new slots, which are hard to come by at a busy airport like Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport.