After nearly two years of the suspension of regular air travel following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ministry of civil aviation recently decided to resume scheduled international flights. The ruling will come in effect December 15 onwards, even as the countries scramble to pre-empt the caseload of the highly lethal Omicron strain (B.1.1.529) of the Coronavirus that has been reported in South Africa and other southern African countries.
While complete resumption of pre-pandemic levels will not take place immediately, it will be for the first time since March 2020 that flights will operate outside of travel bubbles or without being aimed at repatriation. For India, travel bubbles with specific countries have been in place since July last year, but with the lifting of the ban on scheduled flights, the former will now be effectively defunct.
“Resumption of commercial international passenger services would imply reversion to bilaterally agreed capacity entitlements and termination of air bubble arrangements,” tweeted the ministry.
However, with the contagion still surging and ebbing across the world in waves, and concerns over the fresh Omicron strain of the Coronavirus, guidelines for countries vary. In this explainer, we attempt to answer a few of your questions.
Starting December 1, the Centre has mandated submitting 14 days travel details and uploading negative RT-PCR test results not older than 72 hours on Air Suvidha portal before the journey. Failure to comply may result in the passenger being denied to board the flight.
Travellers arriving or transiting through ‘countries at-risk’ such as South Africa and Botswana along with the United Kingdom (UK), Europe, the Middle East, Brazil, Bangladesh, China, Mauritius, New Zealand and Zimbabwe will need to take COVID-19 test post-arrival and wait for results at airport, the Health Ministry has said. Those that test negative will be subjected to home quarantine for 14 days with another test after the seventh day. However, if the results are found to be positive, the sample will be sent for genome sequencing to check for the new variant and the traveller must abide with stringent isolation protocols.
Passengers arriving from countries that do not classify under the high-risk category will be allowed to leave the airport and shall self-monitor health for 14 days. Children under five years of age remain exempted from both pre- and post-arrival testing. However, if found symptomatic for Covid-19 on arrival or during home quarantine period, they shall undergo testing and treated as per laid down protocol.
At the time of boarding the flight, only asymptomatic travellers will be allowed to board after thermal screening and all passengers shall be advised to download Aarogya Setu app on their mobile devices.
For international passengers arriving through seaports or land ports, the same protocols are upheld barring the facility for online registration as it is currently unavailable for such travellers.
International Arrivals in Karnataka
Passengers from ‘at-risk’ countries will undergo random port-of-entry testing on arrival (2% of the total arrivals). From the pool of COVID-19-negative passengers flying in from ‘safe countries’, 5% will undergo testing on arrival. Those returning positive results will be transferred to an isolation facility. All international travellers need to upload their negative RT-PCR report (not older than 72 hours) before boarding, and keep ready self-declaration form to be produced upon arrival.
International Arrivals in Tamil Nadu
International passengers from ‘at-risk’ countries will undergo an on-arrival RT-PCR test and allowed to proceed after the test results return negative. Those testing positive but negative for the Omicron variant must undergo a 7-day quarantine and test again on the eighth day. For travellers from ‘safe’ countries, 2% of the total arrivals will face mandatory testing upon arrival.
International Arrivals in Maharashtra
Passengers from South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe need to take an RT-PCR test upon arrival. A 7-day mandatory quarantine with a re-test on the final day is required for these travellers. In case any of these RT-PCR tests return positive, the traveller will be transferred to a hospital, and will need to undergo another week of home quarantine after returning a negative test result.
The guidelines for the resumption of air travel accord three risk profiles for countries India will re-establish air travel with, as stipulated by the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). With the threat of the B.1.1.529 strain, the weekly number of flights to and from each country will also be limited.
Currently, countries classified as not at-risk will receive “full capacity entitlements according to the bilateral air service agreements”, according to the Ministry of Civil Aviation. These nations include important destinations for Indian travellers such as U.S.A., U.A.E., Canada, Sri Lanka, Australia, and Thailand.
Bilateral air service agreements between two nations determine the number of airlines, entry ports and flights will be part of the contract.
As of now, for countries categorised as at-risk but with an existing air bubble agreement with India, 75 percent of the pre-pandemic operations (or seven frequencies weekly, whichever is higher) for scheduled flights will be allowed (both Indian and foreign carriers). Countries part of this bracket include E.U. members, the United Kingdom, Bangladesh, Botswana, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, and Israel.
For “at-risk” countries without an in-place travel bubble arrangement with India, scheduled flight operations will be allowed to proceed at 50% of pre-pandemic levels. These include China, South Africa, Botswana and Brazil.
Such flights will be allowed to operate without revised capacity entitlements until December 14. Fresh category-specific guidelines will come into effect December 15 onwards.
In India, daily reported infections have been low in the past few months. However, amid anticipation of third and fourth waves in different parts of the world, the new Omicron strain of the COVID-19 virus has been deemed a variant of concern by the WHO. Data have suggested that Omicron has 32 mutations on the spike protein and carries a high risk of re-infection.
Consequently, the new ruling will be supplemented by daily monitoring, and quarantine and testing protocols will continue, along with existing vaccination requirements. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stressed on the need to ramp up surveillance, genome sequencing and suggested a fresh review of the decision to resume international flights.
The U.K. has imposed a ban on travel to/from South Africa and other southern African countries, with several other countries following suit. However, India is yet to suspend flights to/from South Africa.
Cases with the new strain have also been reported in Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium.
The resumption of air travel, including full-capacity flight operations with key destinations, is expected to trigger a drop in fares. Interestingly, in a recent survey, 64% of Indians voted ostensibly against the resumption of scheduled international flights, and apparently want the government to reconsider the decision.
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.