UAE upset as India drags feet on air services deal

UAE upset as India drags feet on air services deal

Passengers are suffering as India airlines blocking increase in flights from Gulf countries, says Ambassador Ahmed Al-Banna.

Despite good ties in several other spheres, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is disappointed that the government has completed its term without renegotiating a bilateral “air services agreement” that would allow more Gulf airlines into India.

In an interview to The Hindu, UAE Ambassador Ahmed Al-Banna said it was “unlikely” that the negotiations, which have been pending for more than five years, would be held until after the elections now, meaning a further delay of several months.

“We are not satisfied at all,” Mr. Al-Banna said. “This is a major issue. Our carriers and so many passengers are suffering due to this delay. I have been trying to hold a meeting on this, [but without success].”

The issue had been raised most recently at the Global Aviation Summit in Mumbai in mid-January, and was brought up by the UAE government during External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Abu Dhabi for the joint commission meeting in December 2018.

This is not the first time that the UAE Ambassador has made his concerns public.

At a speech at the Indian Institute of Technology a few months ago, he had hit out at “lobbying by Indian carriers” that have reportedly blocked any talks on allowing the four UAE carriers —Emirates, Etihad, FlyDubai and Air Arabia — more connections to India.

At full capacity

According to the original air services agreement between India and the UAE, signed in 2007, the sectorial pacts for the four UAE regions of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Ras Al-Khaimah, would be renegotiated if airlines reached 85% occupancy on the flights.

However, according to the Ambassador, all UAE carriers and most Indian carriers reached 100% occupancy more than five years ago, without any revision in the seats offered.

This has led to the seats being sold at high, non-discounted rates.

The Ambassador said the government should take into consideration the fact that more than 55% of Indians flying out of India use UAE airports, and more than three million Indians living in the UAE, who need to travel home as well.

Sources in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Civil Aviation Ministry admitted that an impasse has been reached, and no movement is expected on the issue in the next few months.

A source in the Civil Aviation Ministry said the government has been opposed to raising bilateral rights for Gulf nations and the agreement would be revisited only if Indian carriers also demand an increase. An MEA official said those hit worst were Indian labourers working in the UAE.

In addition, State governments of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Punjab, that send the most workers to the Gulf, have also been keen on increasing the flights with UAE carriers.

Officials said the issue has cast a cloud over otherwise strong bilateral ties that have seen an increase in trade, investment, cooperation on countering terror and the deportation of wanted individuals in the last few years.

In recognition of the improvement in ties, UAE announced it was awarding Prime Minister Narendra Modi its highest civilian order of the Zayed Prize this week.

Outside metros

In talks last year, the UAE had sought an increase of 50,000 flight seats per week (over the existing 65,000 seats) from Dubai and 15,000 extra seats from Sharjah. The UAE has also been keen to run services outside of the main metros to places like Coimbatore, Goa and Chandigarh, but was turned down by the government.

“We have had a status quo for five years and more,” Mr. Al-Banna said, adding that India’s plans for 100 new airports cannot be sustained without allowing more airlines in.

The Ambassador also pointed out that given the financial problems Air India and Jet Airways and other airlines are going through, the number of flights from India was unlikely to increase. “Even so, all these Indian carriers create lobbies to stop other airlines,” he added.

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