The government on Wednesday cited concerns over the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus and indefinitely postponed full international flights’ reopening, which was scheduled on December 15 .
This means international flights will continue to operate on a smaller scale and only with 31 countries with which India has air bubble agreements.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said, “In view of the evolving global scenario with the emergence of new variant of concern, the situation is being watched closely in consultation with all the stakeholders and an appropriate decision indicating the effective date of resumption of scheduled commercial international passenger services shall be notified in due course.”
According to Union Health Ministry, as many as six COVID-19 positive cases were reported from 11 international flights from “at-risk” countries on Wednesday- the first day of stricter testing norms kicking in. This includes four who arrived in Delhi.
The Maharashtra government has issued strict guidelines for international passengers, requiring all those arriving from “at-risk” countries from December 3 to undergo mandatory institutional quarantine for one week. The State also said all international passengers must compulsorily undergo an RT-PCR test on arrival and domestic passengers headed to the State must be allowed to board a flight only if they carried a negative RT PCR test with them.
This made Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan wrote to the State to “align orders” with the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. These guidelines require only passengers from “at-risk” countries to undergo the RT-PCR test, and ask for institutional quarantine only if someone tests positive. Those who test negative have to undergo home quarantine for seven days and take a test on the eight day.
The Ministry of Civil Aviation, in a detailed FAQ document, clarified that passengers transiting through “at-risk” countries, but with their journey originating from a non “at-risk” country would be exempted from RT-PCR test on arrival. Europe and 10 countries are on the Health Ministry’s “at-risk” countries for which there are stricter testing norms.
Passengers from “at-risk” countries, however, have a long wait ahead once they arrive at an airport in India. As per the Health Ministry guidelines, they are required to wait until they get their test results before leaving the airport premises and taking a connecting flight. Test results taken between one hour and six hours depending on whether passengers were opting for RT-PCR test and rapid PCR test. On Tuesday, many passengers complained that they were being asked to wait upto 48 hours.
There was criticism from the aviation industry on the government’s decision to postpone re-opening of full international flights. An airline executive said, “We need to learn to live with the virus. Perhaps we could test everyone on arrival for the next one or two years, instead of going from one knee-jerk reaction to another."
Prashant Pitti, co-founder, EaseMyTrip, said, “We need to be vigilant and careful, but we should not be overreacting. We should avoid creating panic in the market. We are hopeful to see normalcy in international travel as soon as the situation is safe.”
( With inputs from Bindu Shajan Perappadan, Shoumojit Banerjee and Nikhil M. Babu )