According to many passengers who returned to India, the one-way ticket charged by Air India under Vande Bharat Mission is as much as the price of a round trip.

Indians in Toronto take Air India flight under VBM to Ahmedabad. Image by Indian Consulate in Toronto
Coronavirus Vande Bharat Mission Tuesday, June 30, 2020 - 18:29

The Indian government’s Vande Bharat Mission — a massive exercise to bring back its nationals stranded in different countries — came as an immense relief to expatriates, especially for those whose visas had expired, those who have medical emergencies and those who had lost their jobs in the wake of the global lockdown.

The entire evacuation process, of course, comes with a slew of issues: The prolonged, anxious wait to get shortlisted for the travel after registering with the Indian Embassies; tedious procedures before checking in; and the constant fear while sitting crammed next to each other despite the face shield and mask. But these brief inconveniences paled against their urgency to get home.

However, what many passengers who took these repatriation flights under the Vande Bharat Mission could not overlook or comprehend is the steep airfares pegged by the national carrier, Air India. The one-way ticket price was unusually high, almost as much as the cost of a round trip. This got many questioning whether this is beleaguered Air India’s fund-raising exercise.   

TNM spoke to Indian passengers from across the globe who travelled on these repatriation flights and resented the high fares by Air India.

Avantika* had just finished her course in the United Kingdom and returned to New Delhi on June 23 via the Air India flight as part of the third phase of Vande Bharat Mission (VBM). She bought the ticket for Rs 55,000. “Usually, this is what I would pay for a round trip, even if I were to book at the last minute,” she said.

TNM had earlier reported the experience of a passenger from Canada, who said he had to spend his entire year’s savings on the AI tickets.

Siva* had booked flight tickets for Rs 42,000 (per passenger) to fly to India from Canada in May. However, with the onset of the pandemic, the tickets were cancelled. When he booked the tickets under VBM, Air India charged him Rs 1,38,000 per passenger. It cost him Rs 4,14,000 for his family of three.

While Siva paid the lump sum amount, the services hardly matched the exorbitant fare. He alleged there was no food on the 16-hour flight besides a pack of low-quality chips, no physical distancing between passengers and the face masks that were distributed were soaking wet.

Read: My year's savings spent on one Vande Bharat flight: NRI's ordeal goes viral

In an interview to Economic Times, Ajay Singh, Chairman and Managing Director, SpiceJet, said that the fare band under VBM is fixed by the Indian government. He also pointed out that Air India flights were operating at subsidised rates to the Gulf countries but were making up for the loss by flying to the US and Europe “where the fares were much higher than the average fares they would normally get”.

A source in the Aviation Ministry also told TNM that the VBM fares do not cover the cost of operating the flights to the Gulf and southeast Asia.

However, some passengers and social workers who have been helping Indian nationals in Gulf countries, also shared similar complaints of high airfares.

Riya*, who worked as a nurse at a private hospital in Saudi Arabia, reached her hometown in Kerala under the second phase of VBM, on May 19. “I was charged Saudi Riyal 850 (about Rs 17,000). My employer, who generally pays for the flight ticket, refused to pay for the Air India ticket, stating it was overpriced,” she told TNM.

Incidentally, in early June, Air India hiked the prices for the Saudi Arabia-Kerala sector under VBM’s third phase to almost 1,700 riyals. According to The Hindu, the airfare from Riyadh, Dammam and Jeddah airports was increased from 950 riyals (about Rs 18,000) to 1,703 riyals (about Rs 33,000).

“However, various Indian associations and social workers vehemently protested the fare hike, following which the prices were brought down to 950 riyals,” said Bency, who is part of the association called Navayugam Saamskaarika Vedi, which wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

Passengers from southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore also complained of exorbitant fares by Air India. “In normal circumstances, even private airlines like AirAsia charge only 350 to 450 Malayasian ringgit (Rs 6,000 to Rs 7,000), or 660 ringgit during the festive season. Under the VBM, Air India is charging about 800 ringgit, which is double the usual price and unaffordable for many common Indian expatriates in Malaysia,” said Muhammed Riyas MTP, a Malaysia-based social worker and member of Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC), an association for non-resident Indians from Kerala.

Others took to social media to raise their concerns.

With exorbitant ticket prices by debt-ridden Air India, many have even demanded the resumption of normal international flight services. 

While an official at the Air India office in Kochi denied the airline is overpricing tickets under VBM, the official spokesperson declined to comment on this matter.

What aviation experts say

“Effectively, the Vande Bharat Mission is a humanitarian effort where the government is not supposed to charge its own people. However, in the current scenario, I don’t think Air India is doing this to recover from its financial loss, but to recover the operating cost and expenses,” explained Mark Martin, an aviation consultancy who is working with Indian and South Asian airlines.

“Of course, buying air tickets outside VBM would be half the cost as an airline defines its inventory (seats available) at the beginning of the year. But Air India flights are deployed by the Indian government in different circumstances,” he added.

According to Peeyush Naidu, Partner, Deloitte India, the charges for repatriation flights do not lend themselves to ready comparison with fares that were available pre-COVID on these routes. "In normal times, airlines’ fares are based on their pricing systems, which look at competition from other airlines, load factors (number of passengers booked vis-à-vis total number of seats) and time till date of flight, among other aspects. Presently, the repatriation flights are being operated by Air India at the direction of the Indian government. The charges may have reference to operating costs, the nature of Indian diaspora that is coming back from different parts of the world, whether the flights are needing to go empty to get them back, etc. While I am not aware of the specific charges on various routes, I would believe that Air India, as an entity under the Indian government, would not be trying to make a surplus on such flights.”

Joanna Bailey, Editor of Simple Flying, an aviation news website based in London also agreed. “Alongside all the Personal Protection Equipment and enhanced cleaning measures, there is undoubtedly a higher cost involved. As such, it is unknown exactly how much profiteering could be going on, as Air India is likely incurring far greater costs on the flights than they usually would.”

However, according to journalist Prince Mathews Thomas of Money Control, who undertook a repatriation flight along with an aviation expert, estimated that Air India would make a profit of about Rs 26 lakh-Rs 40 lakh from just one flight. This is factoring in several variables such as flying time, aircraft type, fuel consumption and taxes, but excluding airport charges, cost of crew and maintenance. According to the report, VBM will help debt-ridden Air India meet some of its costs as it depends on the Union government to meet expenses.

An expert who has been tracking the aviation sector, including Air India, also told TNM this exercise is simply a clear attempt by the government to earn money from the ones who are willing to give it no matter what.

“I feel there is a psychological attempt by the Indian government to make money. Given the large Indian diaspora, the government is almost certain that people who want to come back urgently will be willing to spend large sums of money. Moreover, the airline has minimised expenses on on-board services as of now on. Most of the passengers are not even getting food on most flights. Additionally, the fuel prices, which is the main source of cost, are at a cheaper rate as compared to pre-coronavirus times. Even if we expect that the outbound flight is going empty, the government is still making good money,” said the expert, who did not wish to be named.

The US accused India of “unfair” and “discriminatory practices” over the repatriation exercise and went on to place restrictions on Air India flights from July 22. “Specifically, the government of India has prevented US carriers from conducting India-US passenger charter operations involving direct sales to individual passengers or through other distribution systems,” the US Department of Transportation (DOT) said.

UAE, too, soon asked Air India to not fly passengers from India on its repatriation flights under VBM, unless specifically approved by the UAE government. The UAE government did not issue any reason for the restriction.

As the fourth phase of Vande Bharat Mission is set to begin from July 3, the number of Air India flights has been significantly reduced, paving the way for private airlines, including Indigo and GoAir, to engage in the evacuation exercise.

(*Names changed on request)

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