Stock India airport passengers
Installation of rapid PCR test facilities at airports in India and Pakistan has finally smoothed out travel to the UAE. Airlines are seeing the benefits from that. Image Credit: PTI

Dubai: With most airports in India and Pakistan now hosting on-site rapid PCR test facilities, travellers from these countries will no longer be facing last-minute flight cancellations.

When UAE allowed the conditional return of expats from India, Pakistan and a handful of other countries earlier this month, one landing requirement was a rapid PCR test taken four hours prior to departure. Since then, airports and airlines have been working towards meeting this requirement, especially after several flights were cancelled and passengers left stranded.

A test facility was recently set up at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport, costing around Dh250 and with the results available in 45 minutes. Mumbai airport is also offering rapid PCR testing for about Dh223. Results can take anywhere between 30 minutes to one hour. Bengaluru airport’s lab charges nearly Dh160 and reports are typically issued between 30 minutes to two hours.

Rapid results

At the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, rapid tests can cost between Dh178 to Dh223. Passengers have been urged to take the test at least five hours prior to departure. The Islamabad airport is offering tests for around Dh123 and results are generally out in about 45 minutes.

“The test is available in all the major airports in Pakistan - for the last four or five days we are doing the rapid PCR test,” said Sohail Nazar, UAE country manager at Airblue. The airline has services from Pakistan to Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. “Dubai has not yet given us the okay to carry passengers into the emirate - we are expecting this in a day or two,” said Nazar.

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Packed flights

The confusion around rapid PCR testing had led to flight cancellations from Pakistan as several airlines could not comply with the regulation. “It was a period of 72 hours in which the cancellations were done by all the airlines,” said Nazar. “In fact, all airlines had cancelled their flights to Dubai only, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi flights were not cancelled.”

Now, passengers are not getting seats for the next five- to seven days because of the backlog.

Too high?

Passengers have complained that the cost of these rapid tests are much higher-than-expected. A normal PCR test in UAE can be had for just Dh65; only some private clinics charge Dh150 or more.

An official with Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority said passengers are willing to pay any price to return to UAE. “Prices are not likely to go down, and people are ready and willing to pay even higher,” said the official. “One-way fare to UAE is somewhere between 60,000-70,000 Pakistani rupees, so paying less than one-tenth of it is no big deal.

“Secondly, they're in compulsion to undergo the test - the test price is not relevant,” said the source. “And the airlines and private labs are taking advantage of this situation.”

Other market watchers take a different view of the matter. “India-Gulf is primarily a labour market which is price sensitive,” said Ashwini Phadnis, a Delhi-based aviation industry analyst. “Unless RT-PCR rules are standardized it is difficult to see traffic bouncing back.”

Fares to travel to Dubai from Delhi, Mumbai, Karachi or Lahore have exceeded Dh1,000 and, in some cases, are hovering around Dh1,500. Some travel agents believe that it will take another few weeks to return to normal ticket prices of Dh400-Dh600.

Last week, Emirates and other carriers said a COVID-19 vaccination certificate was no longer a requirement for entry into Dubai. This is also boosting outbound traffic from UAE to these countries.