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Passengers wearing protective face masks at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata. Image Credit: ANI

Dubai: As regular international flights to and from all airports in India continue to remain suspended in view of the coronavirus pandemic, a demand has been raised to make coronavirus-negative test reports mandatory even for domestic air travel in India. Speaking to Gulf News from Kolkata, Anil Punjabi, the chairman of the eastern region of Travel Agents’ Federation of India, said: “Just like in the case of international passengers, a coronavirus-negative test report should be made mandatory even for domestic flyers in India.”

Officials at the Civil Aviation Ministry in New Delhi were not immediately available for any clarification on this. 

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With a sharp increase in the number of positive cases of coronavirus recorded almost all over India, both train and air travel across the world’s second-most populous nation have been badly hit. After almost 63 days of a nationwide lockdown, domestic air travel was allowed to resume on May 25. However, after more than a month of regular operations on domestic routes, the eastern Indian metropolis of Kolkata issued a ban on domestic flights operating from six cities to Kolkata until July 19, which was subsequently extended until July 31.

Emirates airline operated a special flight from Kolkata to Dubai last Sunday, bringing in UAE residents who were stranded in India.

“The one-way Emirates flight on Sunday had a fairly good load factor [passenger number] and there is a steady demand to have more such flights from the city,” Punjabi said

Ban on domestic flights from six cities

The ban on flights from these cities – New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Nagpur — to Kolkata had initially been made effective from July 6 for a period of 14 days. However, last Friday, the Government of West Bengal announced that the temporary suspension of flights to and from these six cities would continue until July 31.

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Passenger baggage being sanitised at the entrance to the departure lounge at Kolkata airport. Image Credit: PTI

This decision was taken in view of the fact that according to the Government of West Bengal, the number of positive cases of coronavirus in the state started showing a steady increase once flights for domestic travel were opened all over India in early June.

‘Stop the spread’

Punjabi said: “If coronavirus test reports are not made mandatory for domestic passengers then it will be difficult to stop the spread of the virus. Currently, there is no restriction on domestic air travel and people are just free to hop on to a flight, irrespective of their physical condition. This can have a far-reaching impact by allowing the virus to spread from areas in the country that are badly affected to those parts that are relatively less affected.”

On extension of the flight ban, Punjabi added: “A lot of passengers who had booked their tickets and planned their travel, expecting that the ban on domestic flights from these six cities to Kolkata would be lifted after July 19, have been caught unawares. These passengers will now have to either drop their travel plans completely or fly in or out via other cities.”

He added: “However, this decision to extend the flight ban from Kolkata has been taken for the greater good of the public and though this has seen travel agents and airlines suffer a loss and has inconvenienced flyers, we still stand by the decision.”

Eight cities on radar

According to reports, Rajiva Sinha, the Chief Secretary of West Bengal, in a written communication to Pradeep Singh Kharola, the Civil Aviation Secretary, had earlier requested that no flights to West Bengal be scheduled from eight cities with very high numbers of positive cases of coronavirus. However, after much deliberations, Surat and Indore were dropped from the list and the flight ban to Kolkata was made effective involving six cities.

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Planes parked at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata. Image Credit: AFP

This decision to extend the ban until July 31 created some inconvenience for flyers who had already planned their travel and had no clue that the restrictions would be extended. Some flyers were caught unawares and were left with two options: Either cancel their bookings and wait until the end of restrictions; or fly in to or out of Kolkata through cities other that the six designated ones.

The issue of flight ban to and from Kolkata has been a subject of some consternation between the state and the Central government since May. The Civil Aviation Ministry had announced a complete ban on all international flight operations across all airports in India from March 25. However, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had made demands to the federal government to stop all international flights to Kolkata from March 22 itself.