Air India and Air India Express were handed temporary bans last week by authorities in Hong Kong and Dubai for flying in COVID-19 positive passengers to the two cities.
This comes at a time when the Indian government is attempting to augment international air passenger traffic through bilateral travel bubbles.
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia, a key destination for Indian migrant workers, suspended air travel to and from India amid concerns of potential imported cases.
Hong Kong barred Air India for a fortnight until Oct. 03, after one of its flights to the city on Sept. 18 carried six infected passengers.
This is the second time the authorities in Hong Kong have banned Air India. A similar two-week suspension order was handed out to the airline last month, after it flew 14 COVID-19 positive passengers to the city on Aug. 11.
Prior to this, Air India Express was issued a 15-day ban by the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority on Sept. 17. This was because the airline’s ground handling agents failed to prevent two passengers with positive COVID-19 reports from boarding flights to Dubai – one from Delhi on Aug. 28 and the other from Jaipur on Sept. 04.
The suspension order was, however, revoked on Sept. 18 following an apology and assurance of better pre-boarding checks, an Air India Express spokesman told The Straits Times.
India has recorded more than 5.6 million confirmed COVID-19 cases but serological surveys indicate a far greater spread of the infection that is yet to show any convincing sign of having peaked.
As a result, several countries now require visitors flying in from India to produce a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test carried out within 72 hours before departure certifying them to be negative.
Beginning Sept. 17, Singapore introduced this requirement for travellers from India who are not Singapore citizens or permanent residents. This is on top of the existing requirement of a 14-day quarantine.
Between Sept. 17 and 21, nearly two-thirds of Singapore’s imported cases had visited India.
Hong Kong also requires visitors from India to have a negative “nucleic acid test” report conducted 72 hours prior to departure, along with proof that the test was conducted in a laboratory recognised by the local government.
An Air India spokesman told The Straits Times that the airline has been “strictly adhering” to all passenger screening requirements for flights to international destinations and that, wherever applicable, only passengers with COVID-negative reports are allowed on board.
He said passengers are tested again for COVID-19 after landing in Hong Kong and the results “may vary from the reports of tests conducted 72 hours before taking the flight”.
The Indian government has been setting up travel bubbles with other countries to allow smoother international air passenger traffic. It has such an arrangement with 13 countries. Regular scheduled commercial flights have been suspended in India since March 25.
With limited options to fly abroad, there has been a demand for international chartered flights to lesser-served destinations, including Hong Kong.
Kuwait also forbids commercial flights to and from “high-risk” countries such as India, forcing many Indian migrant workers to fly to the UAE and spend additional money on a 14-day quarantine there before heading to Kuwait. (Source: The Straits Times)