US accuses Air India of 'discriminatory practices', restricts its chartered flights

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Faced with allegations levelled by the USA that the Indian government has permitted Air India to fly commercial passengers on outbound legs of repatriation flights, while not permitting U.S. airlines to operate flights to India, the Ministry of Civil Aviation said Tuesday it was in negotiations with various countries to establish "travel bubbles" or unrestricted corridors between countries, including the US.

New Delhi has been carrying out repatriation flights from the US.

On Tuesday, India's Ministry of Civil Aviation said that apart from examining the requests, it has held one round of negotiations on June 15 with representatives of the US Transportation Department and US embassy. "It will be the responsibility of corporate/community organisation and the ATO to ensure that the conditions of the concerned state government in respect of quarantine, COVID testing as well as any other requirements are complied with scrupulously", they added. An AI Express spokesman said the airline has "not yet received approval from the UAE authorities to carry passengers on our VBM flights, although we have requested for it".

The ministry's statement has come after the US Department of Transportation announced on Monday that it has barred Air India from operating chartered flights between India and the United States from July 22 without its prior approval, in an apparent retaliation for the Indian government not allowing American carriers to operate between the two countries.

The decision was made public on a day the USA served an ultimatum of 30 days to Air India, threatening to ban it from conducting repatriation charters under the Vande Bharat Mission. That delay has not hindered Air India, which is planning to operate effectively 53% of its normal US schedule, according to the Department of Transportation. The department's order noted that this was an attempt to restore "a level playing field" for the country's airlines as per the US-India Air Transport Agreement.

Air India started global chartered flights under Vande Bharat Mission from May 6 to help people stranded amid the pandemic reach their destinations.

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"As we go from controlled and managed aviation evacuation of our citizens in distinctive elements of the globe and worldwide nationals from India, we are now hunting at the risk of creating bilateral arrangements", the ministry reported in a statement. "This situation, in which Indian airlines are permitted to perform services pursuant to their rights under the Agreement while US carriers are not, creates a competitive disadvantage for USA carriers vis-à-vis Indian carriers, in contravention of the fair and equal opportunity to compete provision of Article 11 of the Agreement".

However, all foreign airlines are now banned from flying into India, giving Air India a monopoly over the market.

However, officials said only limited number of flights would be allowed to operate under the corridor.

The US objected to India imposing restriction on US airlines from 25 March and conducting lndia-US passenger charter operations through direct sales to individual passengers or through other distribution systems.

As per the statement, travel demand for these destinations has not diminished.

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