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Closure of Pak airspace may hamper US-India flight timings

  • In Community
  • 00:00, 3 Sep
  • By Sudhir Vyas

New Delhi/Islamabad: About a month and a half after opening its airspace to all civilian traffic, Pakistan has threatened to close it again to flights taking off from India, apparently to punish New Delhi for removing the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Fawad Chaudhry, a Minister considered close to Imran Khan, posted on Twitter that the Prime Minister "is considering a complete closure of airspace to India" among other steps.

Pakistan had closed its airspace on February 26 after Indian Air Force war jets hit a terrorist camp in Balakot, and opened up to all civilian aircraft only on July 16. Based on what happened during the four and a half months that Pakistan closed its airspace, this is how flying out of India might be impacted, should Imran Khan decide to go ahead with his threat.

For long haul  flights the timings for aircraft to and from India that normally use Pakistani airspace for transit are likely to increase by at least 70-80 minutes on average. There are 11 air routes over Pakistan’s territory. On the earlier occasion, Pakistan had initially closed its entire airspace and then, from March onward, opened it partially.

If Pakistan were to shut down its airspace again, westbound flights taking off from airports in northern India, such as Delhi, Lucknow, Jaipur, Chandigarh, and Amritsar, will be worst affected. These flights will have to fly south towards Gujarat or Maharashtra, and then turn right over the Arabian Sea on their way to destinations in Europe, North America, or West Asia.

The last time, Air India’s non-stop flights from Delhi to Chicago had a planned stoppage in Europe for refueling. IndiGo’s flight from Delhi to Istanbul, which is the first non-stop flight on this route by an Indian carrier, was forced to make a refueling stop at Doha. SpiceJet, which was the only Indian airline flying the Delhi-Kabul route, had cancelled the flight.

Apart from that Indian carriers will suffer losses as flight timings will increase and more fuel is burnt. The last time around, Indian carriers lost a total of around Rs 700 crore due to the Pakistani action. The largest chunk of losses was suffered by flag carrier Air India.

For passengers, tickets could get more expensive, as airlines will look to pass on at least some of the increased costs to fliers.

But more than anyone else, it is Pakistan itself that will suffer. The last time it shut its airspace, the Pakistani Civil Aviation Authority took a blow of almost $50 million in revenue. This is a sum that Pakistan can hardly afford, given the precarious state of its economy.

Its fiscal deficit was 8.9% of gross domestic product in the year ended June, compared with 6.6% a year earlier, reports said quoting provisional numbers released by the Pakistani Finance Ministry. The deficit is now at its highest in nearly three decades, the report said.

The International Monetary Funds  first quarterly review of a bailout program for Pakistan is looming. Pakistan must increase government revenue by more than 40% in the fiscal year that began in July, as part of the conditions for the $6 billion loan, Bloomberg said. The loan from the IMF could be in jeopardy if the government continues to miss its revenue targets.

In this situation, voluntarily taking a hit by closing its airspace to India makes very little sense.

Meanwhile for India’s flag carrier Air India the current financial worries seems to be never ending.  Air India owes three state-owned oil firms close to ₹4,500 crore in unpaid fuel bills with payments being delayed by almost seven months, forcing retailers to snap supplies, senior officials told this correspondent.

Indian Oil Corp (IOC), Bharat Petroleum Corp Ltd (BPCL) and Hindustan Petroleum Corp Ltd (HPCL) recently stopped jet fuel or ATF supplies to Air India at six airports - Kochi, Pune, Patna, Ranchi, Vizag and Mohali - over payment defaults.

"Air India has a 90 day credit period, which means they have to make payment for fuel they buy today by November 21. But Air India had not been making payments and the credit period was now over 200 days," a senior official at one of the three state-owned oil firms said. Total unpaid dues to three fuel retailers stand at close to ₹4,500 crore.

"They (Air India) offered to pay ₹60 crore which is a drop in the ocean of what they owe," another official at one of the fuel retailers said. IOC, BPCL and HPCL more than a week back jointly wrote to Air India seeking expeditious clearance of the dues, failing which they will be constrained to take action.

"Air India however failed to provide a clear roadmap to clear dues, forcing us to stop supplies," the official said. Another official said Air India gets financial support from the government while for oil firms there is no such help.

"Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) pricing was deregulated in April 2002. And since then we have to run this business without any subsidy support from the government," he said. At present, the government only provides some subsidy on LPG to help roll out its ambitious Ujjwala scheme of providing free cooking gas connections to poor. There is also a subsidy on kerosene supplied through the public distribution system (PDS).

Air India spokesperson claimed that "in the absence of equity support, Air India cannot handle the huge debt service liabilities". "Our financial performance, however, this fiscal is very good and we are moving towards a healthy operating profit. The airline despite its legacy issues is performing very well," he had added. 

Air India has debt of over ₹58,000 crore.