Following a similar spat with China, the United States has moved to restrict Air India’s Vande Bharat flights from India to the United States.

Air India must now give 30 days’ notice for charter flights to the United States

In an order published on Monday, the US Department of Transport claimed India has “impaired the operating rights” of American carriers by running Vande Bharat charter flights to the United States.

The US believes that Air India’s “so-called evacuation charters” have “gone beyond true evacuations”, at least on the India to the United States segments, as they involved direct sales to the general public (evacuation charters are usually organised and sold by governments).

According to the order, Delta requested permission from the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation in May to perform repatriation charter services, similar to those provided by Air India, but received no approval (though there was no mention of an application from United, which has a bigger footprint in the Indian market).

This leads to the US Department of Transport to accuse India of “restrictive and discriminatory treatment” of American carriers.

Claims Air India is ‘circumventing the rules’

The US notes that with 59 flights advertised for the period from June 10 to July 3, 2020, Air India would be performing charter operations equivalent to 53 per cent of the operations it previously performed as scheduled services.

It therefore believes that state-owned Air India “may be using its passenger repatriation charters as a way of circumventing the Government of India-imposed prohibition of all scheduled services”. The order adds:

“The US Government first registered its objections with the GoI through engagement by the U.S. Embassy New Delhi on May 28, 2020. However, the GoI has thus far failed to remedy the situation. Accordingly, the Department has determined that this situation calls for close scrutiny, on a case-by-case basis, of Air India passenger charter operations until this issue has been satisfactorily resolved.”

As a result, the US will now require India to obtain advance permission and provide at least 30 calendar days’ notice before operating any proposed charter flights between the two countries.

The order takes effect 30 days from the date of issue, so Air India has another month to continue Vande Bharat flights to the US in the current manner.

The US earlier imposed similar restrictions on China, resulting in a compromise being struck.

Summing up

The Unites States is clearly unhappy that American carriers have no approval to fly to and from India, while at the same time Air India is planning to operate more than half of its usual services to the US.

If the new restrictions have a material impact on Air India’s operations to the US - a key market for the national carrier - it could hasten a decision by the Indian government to restart normal international air services, which are banned until June 30 for the time being.

What do you make of the order from the United States?