Indian airlines that were betting on Qatar as a popular travel destination, and a hub to connect to Europe and the entire Gulf region, are in for a disappointment.
On March 9, the west Asian country temporarily suspended entry of travellers from 14 nations, including India, as a precautionary measure against Covid-19. The move will affect a large number of Indians with residence or work permits in Qatar, besides temporary visitors and tourists expecting visas upon arrival.
Authorities have also barred those in transit from leaving the airport to enter Doha, Qatar’s capital city. “Passengers with onward connections will not be permitted to leave Hamad International Airport (HIA),” said Qatar Airways on March 9. However, flyers can stay at the airport and wait for their respective layover flight.
This is expected to put Indian airlines, already battling a slowdown, under pressure.
“Doha, in recent years has emerged as one of the most popular overseas destinations for Indians and is also an important stopover point for people travelling to Europe and the US from India,” said a Mumbai-based aviation analyst at a credit rating agency who did not wish to be named.
Indian carriers have consistently increased the frequency of their flights to Doha, anticipating more travel ahead of the FIFA 2022 World Cup.
What’s the big deal?
Currently, Qatar Airways, IndiGo, Air India, and Air India Express connect Indian cities to Doha.
IndiGo, India’s largest airline, operates the most number of these flights, connecting Mumbai, Kochi, Kozhikode, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Chennai, to the Qatari capital. Last November, Qatar Airways and IndiGo signed a codeshare agreement to strengthen the latter’s presence in west Asia. Under the deal, Qatar Airways will be able to book seats for its transiting passengers on IndiGo flights from Doha to Delhi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad.
These plans have now been jeopardised.
“Owing to the travel ban…IndiGo will be cancelling its flights to Doha till March 17, 2020. We will be monitoring the situation closely and will share updates once the ban is lifted,” IndiGo said on March 9.
National carrier, Air India, too, has announced the cancellation of its flights to Qatar. The airline had in the past reduced the frequency to its flights to Doha. However, its no-frills arm, Air India Express, was to launch a new flight from Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu to Doha on March 31.
Similarly, in February, low-cost carrier GoAir announced daily flights between Doha and Mumbai from March 19, 2020. It is unclear yet if this will be postponed.
“With restrictions already existing to China, Thailand, and Malaysia, Indian carriers were relying on movement from Gulf countries, which has also been disturbed now,” said the Mumbai analyst.
Too much to deal with
The Covid-19 pandemic comes at a time when India’s aviation sector is dealing with a laundry list of problems. The outbreak has forced them to request a relief package from the government.
Bookings and occupancy in domestic flights have dropped by almost 15% in the past few days, the Business Standard newspaper reported on March 10. There’s also been drop in fares on international routes.
Yet, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), on March 11, assured flyers travelling is safe and called for a return to normalcy.