200406 dubai airport
Passengers waiting at Dubai International Airport: File picture used for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: AFP

Registrations have opened for expatriates from Kerala wanting to be repatriated, and already more than 45,000 have signed up from the UAE. And that’s just within the first few hours.

Repatriation requests via a dedicated online portal (www.registernorkaroots.org) opened at 12am midnight, and as of now, the highest number have been from the UAE.

The numbers have swelled as job losses mount, forcing many families - and individuals - to decide that heading back to India is the most viable option financially.

But are India’s airlines up to the task of picking up all those wishing to fly back? And doing so smoothly enough?

Some have their doubts.

“You could argue that India’s airlines haven’t exactly come to lead by example and demonstrate their willingness to undertake repatriation flights,” said Saj Ahmad, chief analyst, StrategicAeroResearch. “So, if they miss out on this opportunity, they only have themselves to blame.

“To a degree, the Indian government is also to blame since there hasn’t [so far] been any suggestion from them they wanted flights to be operated by an Indian airline. Or add extra flights beyond that which UAE airlines are supplying.”

Valid critique

Etihad Airways has announced it will resume passenger operations from May 16, while Air Arabia says it will operate repatriation flights to bring back stranded Emiratis from four cities in India.

In contrast, India’s airlines can offer more clarity on when they will resume international operations once the government lifts the nation-wide lockdown on May 3. Carriers are expected to restart domestic operations first before resuming service on international routes.

“While the situation remains fluid, we plan to resume domestic services in a phased manner starting May 4,” said a spokesperson at Vistara. “International air travel will depend on the decisions of the Ministry of Civil Aviation of India and government authorities of the countries we fly to.”

The Gulf sector contributes to about 20 percent of Vistara’s international operations at present. It operated two flights a day between Mumbai and Dubai before the lockdown.

The budget airline IndiGo will also resume operations on May 4. However, according to a spokesperson, it will begin operations on domestic routes only and later ramp up to commence operations on some international routes as well.

IndiGo operated an average of 46 flights daily from India to the UAE in the first week of March. Of this, Dubai accounted for 30 flights, while Abu Dhabi and Sharjah had eight flights each.

Another leading budget airline SpiceJet refused to comment.

India airline
Can India's carriers get into the act at the first opportunity? Their status will become clear on May 4 after India's lockdown restrictions are lifted. Image Credit: ANI

UAE airlines chart out plans

Etihad Airways will resume regular passenger flights, including to Indian cities, from May 16. Flights to India are available to book, with an Etihad flight to Mumbai scheduled to depart from Abu Dhabi on May 16.

The rate for a one-way economy ticket is Dh2,573 and for a business class, Dh5,181. That for a one-way economy ticket from Abu Dhabi to Kochi on May 16 is Dh2,863, and for business class Dh5,521. A one-way ticket from Abu Dhabi to New Delhi costs Dh2,613 in economy, and for a business class ticket is Dh5,211.

Before the COVID-19 imposed disruption, Etihad operated 28 flights a week to Mumbai and New Delhi each, 21 flights to Kochi and 14 flights to Bengaluru and Chennai each, according to data from ClearTrip, the online booking portal.

An Emirates spokesperson told Gulf News: “In regards to flight resumption, we are closely monitoring the situation, and we hope to resume services as soon as conditions allow. We will announce any service resumption when we are in a position to do so.”

Before the lockdown in India, Emirates operated 35 flights per week to Mumbai, 28 flights to New Delhi, 24 flights to Bangalore, 21 flights to Chennai and 14 flights to Kochi.

Air Arabia operated repatriation flights from Mumbai, Delhi, Cochin and Hyderabad to carry UAE nationals back home.

“Air Arabia remains committed to bring stranded citizens back home as well as supporting requests to operate repatriation flights and working closely with UAE authorities in this regard,” a spokesperson said.

The Sharjah carrier operated 14 flights per week to Mumbai, New Delhi and Kochi each and 7 flights each to Chennai and Bangalore before the lockdown was imposed, ClearTrip data show.

A price to be paid

Repatriation flights will not come cheap. With such flights being limited in frequency, it is obvious demand will outstrip supply, pushing fares higher. “Usually, such flights are offered by airlines directly - travel agents will largely be sidelined and cut out of this equation,” added Ahmad.

India Airline 2
The only flights India's carriers are engaging these days is to bring in medical supplies. Image Credit: ANI

Summer bookings

UAE-based airlines have already opened bookings to India in July and August. It is hoped by then the Indian government would have completely relaxed air travel restrictions.

It is unlikely that Indian airlines will want to miss out on this lucrative traffic.

“Traditionally, fares from the UAE to India during the summer months vary between Dh800 to Dh4,500, depending on cabin class and how far ahead the booking is made,” said Amit Taneja, Chief Commercial Officer, ClearTrip.

In 2019, the average fare during summer from the UAE to Mumbai on economy was Dh992 (Dh2,971 in business); to New Delhi was Dh995 (Dh2,484); Kochi was Dh1,079 (Dh2,525); Chennai was Dh1,147 (Dh3,592); and Bengaluru was Dh1,211 (Dh4,501), according to data from ClearTrip.

Fares to India during July and August this year seem much cheaper in comparison, especially in business-class. However, fares increase as one gets closer to summer. As of today, the average fare to travel during summer this year to New Delhi on economy costs Dh785 (Dh1,284 in business) and to Mumbai, it is Dh785 (Dh1,805). For Kochi, it costs Dh979 (Dh1,750), as per data from ClearTrip.

For those still wanting to take a break during the summer, now seems to be a good time to lock in rates.

But many UAE based companies had been telling their staff to use up their annual or other pending leave over the last month, so that by May/June, they can resume work on a clean slate. If so, this means that travel this summer will not figure anywhere in their plans.

That would translate into one long difficult summer for the airline industry.

Vistara foresees no layoffs
The lockdown in India resulted in a suspension of all airline services from March 25, significantly affecting cashflow.

“There have been no job losses at Vistara - however, as part of a number of steps taken to conserve cash, we had to reduce our staff costs,” a spokesperson told Gulf News.

About 30 per cent of Vistara’s workforce had to take compulsory no-pay leave of two to six days in April. Senior employees were asked to take six days of unpaid leave.