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India Refuses China's requests to resume passenger flights: Reports

BNE News Desk , June 20, 2024
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New Delhi: China is pressuring India to resume direct passenger flights after a four-year pause, but New Delhi is pushing back, according to officials. 

Since the deadliest military clash in decades on their disputed Himalayan border in June 2020, which claimed the lives of 20 Indian and at least four Chinese soldiers, ties between China and India have been tense.

Following the conflict, India has blocked hundreds of well-known apps, made it harder for Chinese businesses to invest, and closed passenger routes, but direct freight planes continue to run between the two Asian superpowers. 

Both economies would gain from direct flights, but China faces greater risks because its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is trailing behind India's booming aviation industry. 

According to two persons with direct knowledge of the situation who spoke to Reuters, China's government and airlines have requested several times in the last year or so for India's civil aviation authority to restore direct flying connections.

One of them stated that China views this as a "big issue". China's Foreign Ministry told Reuters in a statement last week, "We hope the Indian side will work with China in the same direction for the early resumption of direct flights," adding that it would be in the best interests of both nations for flights to resume.

On Beijing's wish to resume flights, however, a senior Indian official acquainted with bilateral developments between the two countries stated: "Unless there is peace and tranquillity on the border, the rest of the relationship cannot move forward." 

CEO Pieter Elbers of Indigo, the biggest airline in India, told Reuters that while Chinese carriers are in talks with their government about resuming direct connections, Indian airlines are in talks with New Delhi. Requests for comments were not answered by India's ministries of civil aviation or overseas affairs.

Since 2020, Beijing has consistently objected to India's increased inspection of Chinese companies. This year, the Chinese smartphone giant Xiaomi informed the Indian government that "confidence building" measures were required since component suppliers were hesitant to establish themselves in India due to concerns about compliance and visa requirements.

According to statistics from aviation analytics company Cirium, the number of scheduled flights to and from China peaked in December 2019 at 539, operated by airlines like Shandong Airlines, IndiGo, Air India, China Southern, and China Eastern. Of those scheduled flights, 371 were operated by Chinese carriers—more than twice as many as by Indian airlines. Four months later, as the pandemic worsened, flights were cancelled. Even after China removed all COVID travel restrictions in early 2023 and India removed COVID restrictions on foreign aviation routes a year later, they have not resumed, with the exception of a few COVID repatriation flights. 

Now, passengers have to switch aircraft at hubs like Dubai or Singapore, or in Hong Kong, which has its own aviation authority and border controls from the rest of China.

Due to this, the trip between India and China now takes more than ten hours instead of six, giving airlines like Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, and Emirates the opportunity to win rich business from traffic to the United States.

Due to growing expenses and challenges obtaining visas for the world's highest spenders on foreign travel and airlines, the rebound in Chinese out-of-country travel is trailing behind. Indigo's Elbers said in a recent interview in Dubai, "When the time is right and the governments come to a mutual understanding of how to move forward, we'll assess the market."

IndiGo flies seven times a week on the Delhi-Hong Kong route, where passengers can connect to mainland China. Air India CEO Campbell Wilson said direct India-China flights "would seem to be a huge potential market" but for now there are factors at play "beyond our level".

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