KMCC officials distribute tickets for its first two chartered flights to repatriate stranded community members to Kerala.
KMCC officials distribute tickets for its first two chartered flights to repatriate stranded community members to Kerala. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: Charter flights repatriating stranded Indians to Kerala will not be allowed to charge more than the ticket fares for special repatriation flights under the Indian government’s Vande Bharat Mission, a top diplomat has said.

Indian Ambassador to the UAE Pavan Kapoor on Tuesday told Gulf News that the state government has imposed a new fare ceiling condition for charter flights carrying stranded Indians to the state. “Kerala has informed the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) that in future charter flights to the state would require the charterer to give an undertaking by the operator that they will not be charging more than the government fare in the repatriation flights,” he said.

The new condition will be implemented now onwards when the Indian missions in the UAE are approached by any entity to charter repatriation flights to Kerala, Kapoor clarified.

“Anybody who is now wishing to charter flights to Kerala will have to meet this clause as the state will not give approval otherwise,” he clarified.

Charters charging higher

Two flights that have already been chartered to Kerala on June 2 and June 3 by different units of the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC) in the UAE are charging Dh1,250 per ticket, the organisation’s UAE president Puthu Rahman confirmed to Gulf News

The average fare on Air India Express repatriation flights to Kerala is Dh725.

The newly announced fare cap will be applicable to flights that will be chartered in the coming days.

“We had got the lowest fare deal (Dh900) from Go Air. But the Indian government did not give approval for that airline for this service. We managed to get this fare from Spice Jet after a lot of negotiations.”

Since the handling charges are higher in Dubai and Sharjah airports, he said the repatriation flights are being operated from Ras Al Khaimah.

The first two flights chartered by KMCC will fly 160 passengers each, said Rahman.

“We are giving free tickets to 10 per cent of the passengers to ease their burden. If there are more people who genuinely deserve help, we will help. But, keeping the fares equal to the flights operated by the national carrier is not practically possible. No charter flights can fly to Kerala in that case.”

He said KMCC will try to re-negotiate with the airline companies to further reduce the fare and seek state government’s approval in future.

Kerala’s announcement comes amidst complaints from a section of the community members that stranded Indians desperately waiting for their turn for repatriation are forced to shell out more from their pockets to fly by charter flights and India needs to increase the number of repatriation flights to address the issue.

Rich-poor divide?

Afi Ahmed, a Dubai-based travel agency owner who was trying to charter flights for some community organisations and companies here said people were forced to opt for charter flights because of the slow pace in which repatriation is happening under the missions.

“Air India Express and Air India used to operate approximately 700 weekly flights to Gulf including 33 destinations before the pandemic. If the government is approving Air India and Air India Express to operate more flights, the same people who opt for charter flights can go on those flights for cheaper fares. Now those who can afford to pay more will catch the charter flights that will take them home early.”

“This would in effect reflect a rich-poor divide in repatriation which can be prevented only if the government puts a reasonable fare cap.”

He said Kerala’s new demand cannot be practically implemented.

“This is equal to saying no charter flight can be sent as private airlines cannot operate for such cheap rates. Instead, Kerala can request the central government to increase the number of daily flights to the state or put a ceiling of Dh1000 to Dh1100 less than which no private airline is likely to charter flights in my understanding.”

Need for more flights

Dubai-based social worker Naseer Vatanappally said the need of the hour is more repatriation flights.

“Since the government is ensuring that those registered with the compelling reasons only are flying on the charter flights, it is logical for the government to send more special repatriation flights by Air India and Air India Express which charge lesser than the charter flights.”

“If the government is allowing other carriers to operate flights for the same people who have registered with the missions, why is it not sending more flights by the national carrier for the same purpose,” he asked.

The Indian Ambassador said the government had increased the number of flights in the second phase of Vande Bharat mission and is trying to ramp up the capacity for repatriation of Indians all over the world in the next phase.

“One of the biggest things that matter is the capacity of the state government to receive the returnees. The central government is allotting flights mainly based on the approval from the state governments. We are further ramping up our capacity to operate special flights from the UAE in the next phase,” he said.