Pakistan Airspace Reopens After Longtime

Distances between southeast Asia, with north India and especially Delhi at its heart, started shrinking from early Tuesday morning (IST) when Pakistan finally reopened its airspace for overflying after a tortuous 138 days. This means flights between Delhi and the west will see travel times reduced by up to four hours and Air India’s flights to US will again be nonstop. Ever since Pakistan closed its airspace on February 27 following Indian Air Force’s Balakot strike, these flights were taking a much longer route that meant greater travel time, (including a fuelling stop for US flights) and huge spike in expenses for airlines.

Pakistan’s civil aviation authority issued a notice to airmen (NOTAM) at 12.41 am (India time) which said “with immediate effect Pakistan airspaceis open for all type of civil traffic on published ATS (air traffic service) routes.” At that time, Air India’s San Francisco (SFO)-Delhi service AI 184 — one of the longest nonstops globally — was among the several international flights winging their way to Delhi.

The national carrier, which has suffered almost Rs 500 crore loss due to Pakistan airspace closure, reacted quickly. It asked the crew of AI 184 to fly direct to Delhi over Pakistan, making it the first flight of an Indian carrier to do so after February 27. The flight from the Golden Gate became the first to fly over the newly-opened gates of Pakistan airspace on its way to Delhi after 4 am on Tuesday.

“As a result, AI 184 reached Delhi almost two hours ahead of schedule. Our second flight from SFO is also reaching Delhi at 4.30 pm on Tuesday, instead of 6.30 pm. Progressively all our flights will resume the pre-February 27 route over Pakistan,” said a senior AI official.

SpiceJet’s Jaipur-Dubai SG 57 was among the first flights to enter Pakistan airspace from India side on Tuesday morning while flying westwards.

AI in a statement said: “Ever since Pakistani airspace was closed, we had to reroute our flights south of Pakistan. The flying time for Long haul flights towards USA increased by 90 minutes and also addition fuel usage needed. US-bound flights had to take a stop at Vienna where crew was changed, and (this entire process took an extra) three hours. As Pakistan airspace now open aircraft utilisation will go up while crew requirement will come down by 25%. Flight operation cost for US-bound flight will drop by Rs 20 lakh one way and for Europe-bound flights by Rs 5 lakh. From Tuesday-Wednesday night flight operation may (may return to route taken) before closer of Pakistani airspace.”

IndiGo is also working on finally making its Delhi-Istanbul flight direct. Since launch this March, this flight was taking a stop in Doha while both going to and returning from Istanbul. An IndiGo official said: “A senior Pakistan aviation official called our operations centre soon after Monday-Tuesday midnight to inform that the airspace had reopened for overflying. We are holding meetings and doing safety risk assessment. Our target is to ensure from Wednesday the Delhi-Istanbul flights becomes a direct flight by flying over Pakistan, Afghanistan and Caspian Sea. This route will allow us to avoid flying over the waters of Iran along the Persian Gulf-Strait of Hormuz-Gulf of Oman (where US has disallowed its airlines from overflying and India has asked its airlines to avoid).”

It remains to be seen when foreign carriers that have cancelled flights to India due to closure of Pakistan airspace now resume the same. US major United had suspended its Newark-Delhi flight on April 5 due to “continued closure of Pakistani airspace” and on June 21 the Newark-Mumbai flight was suspended due to US restrictions on overflying Iran airspace. On Monday night, before Pakistan airspace was reopened, it had these daily directs will resume from October 26. Similarly, Air Canada’s Delhi-Toronto daily is suspended till August 1. Comments are awaited from United and Air Canada on whether they will prepone resumption of their suspended India flights now.

Most airlines operating between the west and southeast Asia were affected by Pakistan airspace restrictions. A Singapore Airlines spokesperson said, “We are reviewing our overflight options in relation to Pakistani airspace with the relevant authorities.”

Air Indiawas the worst sufferer financially of this ban as after Jet’s collapse this April, it is the only Indian carrier with flights to Europe and US that had to take longer routes. AI has lost Rs 491 crore till July 2. SpiceJet, IndiGo and GoAir lost Rs 30.7 crore, Rs 25.1 crore and Rs 2.1 crore, respectively, according to the data given by aviation minister H S Puri in Rajya Sabha on July 3.

SpiceJet had cancelled its Delhi-Kabul direct since Pakistan airspace closure. However, Pakistan airspace will not witness one Indian carrier over its skies now — Jet airways — which was flying on February 27 and has since shut down.