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Posted at: Jul 16, 2019, 9:11 AM; last updated: Jul 16, 2019, 6:03 PM (IST)

Pakistan reopens airspace months after Balakot strikes; airlines breathe easy

Pakistan reopens airspace months after Balakot strikes; airlines breathe easy
An aerial view of the Karachi airport. Reuters/file

Tribune News Service
New Delhi, July 16

Normal air traffic operations between India and Pakistan resumed on Tuesday with Islamabad opening its airspace for all civilian flights almost five months after shutting it down following the Balakot air strikes.

Pakistan's Civil Aviation Authority issued a notice to airmen (NOTAM) at 12.41 am (IST), stating that the country's airspace has been opened with immediate effect for all types of civil traffic on "published ATS (air traffic service) routes".

Following Pakistan's move, India also issued a "revised NOTAM", announcing that normal air traffic operations have resumed between the two countries.

"Consequent to Pakistan issuing NOTAM to lift all airspace restrictions, relevant authorities have informed that India has also issued revised NOTAM immediately thereafter. With this, normal air traffic operations have resumed through all Flight Information Regions between India and Pakistan," a government source said. 

Hours later, India's Civil Aviation ministry said flights had started using the closed air routes, bringing great relief to airlines and air passengers.

"After cancellation of NOTAMS by Pakistan and India in the early hours today, there are no restrictions on airspaces of both countries, flights have started using the closed air routes, bringing a significant relief for airlines," the Twitter handle of the ministry said.

"This is great news. A big relief to air passengers," it added             

With this, operational costs of flights are likely to go down. Air India said costs for one-way US and Europe-bound flights are likely to come down by Rs 20 lakh and Rs 5 lakh, respectively.

After Pakistan closed its airspace following the Balakot air strikes of February 26, Air India suffered a financial loss of around Rs 491 crore as it had to re-route its various international flights.

An Air India spokesperson said on Tuesday, "As Pakistan airspace now open, aircraft utilisation will go up while crew requirement will come down by 25 per cent. Flight operation cost for USA-bound flight may come down by Rs 20 lakh one way and for Europe-bound flights, it may come down by Rs 5 lakh. From tonight, flight operation may be on original schedule, meaning as was before the closure of Pakistani airspace".

Other airlines such as Spice Jet (Rs 30 crore) and Indigo (Rs 25 crore) also suffered.  Several from Central Asia stopped their flights to India altogether. 

Air Astana from Kazakhstan said it would also resume flights after suspending them due to doubling of flight time while carrier from UAE will no longer have to spend extra 25 per cent fuel and an extra hour of flight time. 

International passengers from the US, Canada and Europe to Punjab and Delhi will also breathe easier, as will travellers who were taking transit flights to Europe from other countries.

Pakistan had closed its airspace immediately after the Balakot air strikes of February 27 and later relented by opening two of the 11 air corridors in its air space. But these were of limited relevance to India as most fights to the west and north-west had to incur extra air miles to their destinations.

On its part, the IAF announced on May 31 that all temporary restrictions imposed on Indian airspace post the Balakot strike had been removed. However, this did not benefit most commercial airliners and they were waiting for Pakistan to fully open its airspace.

IndiGo, India's largest airline by domestic market share, was unable to start direct flights from Delhi to Istanbul due to the closure of the Pakistan airspace.

The low-cost carrier started flying the Delhi-Istanbul route in March. It had to take the longer route over the Arabian Sea and make a stop at Doha in Qatar for refuelling.

The issue had international repercussions with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani bringing it up during his meetings with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. In Afghanistan, there was unrest in some parts after fruits could not be exported to India due to curtailment of flights on the India-Afghan air corridor. In central Farah province, farmers expressed their annoyance by disgorging watermelons on the main highway. Patients have had a hard time reaching India as airfares more than doubled due to fewer flights and longer airtime, said Tahir Qadiry, Charge d’ Affaires at the Afghan embassy here.
Last week, a senior Pakistani official had said airspace will only be opened if India reduced the forward deployment of its air assets. A month back, another Pakistani official had explained Islamabad’s inability to open the airspace on similar grounds, arguing that the current positioning of Indian fighter aircraft is two-three minute of flight time from the border, which is too less for Pakistan’s comfort.

Pakistan Aviation Secretary Shahrukh Nusrat had earlier informed a parliamentary panel that Pakistan would not move the ban until India removed its jets from forward bases. With PTI

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