By- Ravreet Singh
In late march 2020, Government of India announced lockdown of whole country, leaving thousands of foreign nationals stranded across the country. Many countries started repatriation flights for their citizens, including US, Netherlands, Malaysia, etc from the country.
Punjab has one of the biggest diasporas settled in UK, Canada, Australia and other countries. Majority of them visit Punjab during winter and spring months. Before lockdown, Sri Guru Ram Das Jee International Airport Amritsar was directly connected to 9 major international destinations including London and Birmingham. Majority of the passengers from Australia travelled via Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia, Malindo Air or Singapore on Scoot airlines. Qatar airways also provided convenient connectivity to North America and European destinations.
With lockdown imposed on very short notice, thousands of foreign residents got stuck in Punjab. Even a complete lockdown kept the holy city airport and its staff busy for the operation of special repatriation flights by many countries. The first repatriation flight took off from the airport for Malaysia by Malindo airlines to Kuala Lumpur. Malindo Air repatriated about 180 Malaysian residents from Amritsar. Soon after, many more countries started special flights from Amritsar.
There was an estimate that around 15,000 UK citizens were stuck in Punjab. The UK government started with 3 flights from Amritsar from 2nd week of April from Amritsar. Due to high demand, they continued to add more flights. A total of 28 flights operated by British and Qatar Airways from April till May 15, 2020 flew around 8,271 people back to their home.
British Airways was the first UK airline to land in Amritsar and also the first airline to operate a direct flight between London Heathrow and Amritsar in 10 years. Air India suspended its direct Amritsar-London-Toronto flight in October 2010.
While these UK flights were operating, there was also a big demand by the stranded Canadian residents for direct repatriation flights from Amritsar to Canada. Initially, Air India operated special flights for Canadians via Delhi to London with onward connectivity on Air Canada to Toronto and Vancouver.
Later, the Canadian foreign office signed a contract with Qatar Airways to operate direct repatriation flights from Amritsar to Toronto and Vancouver with a technical stop at Doha. Qatar Airways and Air India in total operated 25 flights to Canada repatriating almost 7,500 Canadians from Amritsar
For the first time, US government also operated a special flight from Amritsar to San Francisco via Delhi repatriating around 97 passengers to fly home via Delhi on United Airlines. Air India facilitated travel of passengers from Amritsar to Delhi.
The lockdown also left many foreign students stranded in Punjab. Bhutan And Sri Lanka repatriated their citizens from Punjab. Bhutan repatriated its around 136 nationals on flight operated by Druk Air. Sri Lanka also repatriated its around 101 nationals on flight operated by Sri Lankan Airlines.
Total of about 57 repatriation flights were operated from Amritsar that helped around 16,500 foreign residents to reach home. Amritsar airport became number one airport in India for repatriation flights to UK and Canada. Flights from Amritsar to UK and Canada was also one of the biggest evacuation mission by these countries from around the World.
Amritsar Airport doesn’t have direct connectivity with London Heathrow Airport or Toronto and Vancouver in Canada. Many Punjabis are asking the question if this data will help, world leading airlines like British Airways, Air Canada or even India’s national carrier start direct flights any of these destinations in future from Amritsar. Air India operates direct Delhi-Toronto flight by providing convenient connectivity to/from Amritsar. A direct flight will save both time and money for them and it will be a big economic boost for the region.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic airlines around the world are announcing layoffs to reduce their costs. British Airways and Air Canada are also doing the same. The present situation at many other airlines around the world are bad and they are struggling to survive this pandemic. When situation will become normal, airlines will focus on routes which will be most profitable for them.
According to many aviation consulting firms, the airlines will take around 2 years to see air travel demand at pre coronavirus level. With airlines knowing the demand from Amritsar for London Heathrow and major airports in Canada like Toronto and Vancouver, we can hope that airlines like British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air Canada will evaluate and consider to fly direct to Amritsar in future.
Amritsar, Punjab India
Ravreet Singh is a young 16-year old blogger who has a great interest in aviation. His main focus on aviation is connectivity of Amritsar, Punjab with the World. He is the youngest team member of FlyAmritsar Initiative, a public campaign for more direct flights to/from Amritsar.