US alleges discrimination, moves to regulate Air India’s chartered flights under Vande Bharat Mission
The United States has described as "discriminatory and restrictive" the Indian government not allowing American carriers operate chartered flights on Indo-US routes even though Air India was doing so under the Vande Bharat Mission.
Therefore, Air India will not be allowed to operate any chartered flight on Indo-US routes from July 22 onward unless specifically permitted by the US' Department of Transportation (DOT), said an official order of the DOT on Monday.
"We are taking this action because the Government of India (GoI) has impaired the operating rights of US carriers and has engaged in discriminatory and restrictive practices with respect to US carrier services to and from India," said the DOT order.
Scheduled international passenger flights have been suspended in India since March 25 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Air India started international chartered flights under Vande Bharat Mission from May 6 to help people stranded abroad to return home amid the pandemic. It has been operating chartered flights on Indo-US routes since May 18 where tickets on both the legs are sold.
While tickets on the India-US leg are sold through Air India's website to the public, the seats on the US-India leg have to be purchased after contacting the Indian Embassy in the US.
The US Department of Transport said it appears that Air India may be using its passenger repatriation charters as a way of circumventing the Government of India-imposed prohibition of all scheduled international services.
"On May 26, 2020, Delta Air Lines, Inc. ("Delta"), via letter, requested permission from the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) to perform repatriation charter services similar to those provided by Air India. To date, Delta has not received approval to perform the requested repatriation charters," the DOT said.
Explaining further, the DOT said Air India released a schedule for additional flights on June 3 that includes 49 US-India round-trip charter flights that are scheduled to operate between June 10-July 1.
"On June 13, Air India released a schedule for 10 additional repatriation flights between June 20-July 3," it said.
Prior to the March 25th suspension of scheduled passenger services, Air India operated 34 round-trip flights per week to the United States.
"With 59 flights advertised for the period from June 10 to July 3, 2020, Air India would be performing the charter operation at a rate of 53 per cent of the operations it previously performed as scheduled services," the DOT stated.
This situation, in which Indian airlines are permitted to perform services pursuant to their rights under the "US India Air Transport Agreement" while US carriers are not, creates a competitive disadvantage for US carriers vis-à-vis Indian carriers, it noted.
While Air India is permitted by the Indian government to sell tickets directly to individual passengers or through other distribution systems, the US-based carriers are not allowed to do so even if they are permitted to operate a chartered flight connecting India, the DOT mentioned in its order dated June 22.
"Effective 30 days from the service date of this order, it shall not perform any Third-and/or Fourth-Freedom charter flights unless the Department has granted it specific authority in the form of a statement of authorization to conduct such charters," the DOT said.
Moreover, it said: "Air India shall file applications for statements of authorization required... at least 30 calendar days before the proposed charter flights."
The Third Freedom rights under Chicago Convention rules allow an airline to operate flights from one's own country to another country. The Fourth Freedom rights allow an airline to fly from another country to one's own country.