India Mulls International Air ‘Bubbles’ After U.S. Cries Foul
A sign displaying gate information is displayed as travelers wait in line at the drop-off point to enter Terminal 3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

India Mulls International Air ‘Bubbles’ After U.S. Cries Foul

India is considering opening up so-called “bilateral bubbles” -- tightly controlled international travel corridors -- with countries including the U.S., France, Germany and U.K., hours after President Donald Trump’s administration threatened to restrict charter flights from the South Asian nation.

“As we move from controlled and managed aviation evacuation of our citizens in different parts of the world and foreign nationals from India, we are now looking at the possibility of establishing bilateral arrangements,” India’s civil aviation ministry said in a statement Tuesday. “As we contemplate further opening up in response to demands, we are looking at the prospect of establishing individual bilateral bubbles.”

Earlier on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation accused India of violating a treaty governing aviation between the two countries and cited state-run Air India Ltd.’s repatriation flights as an “unfair and discriminatory” practice. U.S. airlines are not allowed to conduct similar flights to the country. India said a final decision on its negotiations with several countries including the U.S. will be taken soon.

Air bubbles are unique accords between two cities that agree on precautions to prevent the spread of Covid-19 across borders. The concept has emerged as a savior for airlines that have been pushed to the brink by the industry’s worst-ever crisis. However, they also highlight the biggest challenge to re-establishing international travel: agreeing on the level of protections. Additionally, good relations with the U.S. are crucial for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he scrambles to limit damage from a deadly border standoff with neighboring China this month.

Air India has been advertising a schedule that is more than half of pre-virus operations, the DOT said. “The charters go beyond true repatriations, and it appears that Air India may be using repatriation charters as a way of circumventing” U.S. flight restrictions, according to the agency.

Air India didn’t respond to requests for comment on the U.S. order, which is due to become effective in 30 days.

The action against India follows weeks of DOT restrictions against Chinese airlines after the U.S. agency accused that nation of unfairly banning American carriers in the wake of the virus. On June 15, the U.S. announced it would allow four flights a week from China after it permitted the same number by U.S. carriers.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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