By: Sameep Singh Gumtala
In a recent development on September 2nd, the pilots of the German airline Lufthansa went on lightning strike for a day due to which the airline cancelled around 800 flights from its hubs in the German cities of Frankfurt and Munich, affecting an estimated 130,000 passengers globally. About 700 passengers were affected in Delhi-India alone due to the cancellation of flights by Lufthansa & its code-share airlines.
As the situation evolved during that day due to cancellation of flights, it is pertinent to note that most of the passengers seen in pictures and videos aired on various TV channels and social media were Punjabis, and majority of them were Punjabi students traveling to Canada for the new school year. The other people seen sloganeering outside the airport were friends and relatives of these travelers.
For the past several years, our advocacy campaign has been asserting that over 40-50 percent of the international passengers travelling from Delhi airport are from Punjab. Once again, this situation proved our hunch to be true, about passengers traveling from Delhi to Canada, the percentage at this time is as high as 70 to 80 percent. Not only this, many of the passengers on these canceled flights reached Delhi by connecting flights on Vistara, Air India and other airlines originating from Amritsar Airport.
Airline tickets for the months of August and September are very hard to come by as thousands of students from Punjab travel to Canada for the start of their classes. They are spending anywhere between 2 to 3 lac rupees for one-way tickets. The astronomical price of about Rs. 3 lacs for one-way economy class tickets on a direct flight by Air India or Air Canada has beaten even the fares of return business class ticket for Delhi-Canada sector that were available before the start of the pandemic.
In the year 2020 during lockdown due to the pandemic, thousands of Canadians got stranded in Punjab, and they had to spend anywhere between 3500 to 5000 dollars for buying one-way tickets to return home. Even after the resumption of flights, the demand for tickets to Canada has been exceeding availability of seats. There is such a rush for the tickets that Scoot airline operating Amritsar-Singapore flights, connecting passengers to Canada through its partner Singapore Airlines on Singapore-Vancouver sector, got their tickets fully sold in early July for flights in the month of August – September.
Despite the large number of passengers from Punjab and most of them purchasing expensive tickets, neither Air India nor Air Canada are interested in acceding the people’s demand of direct flights from Amritsar to Toronto or Vancouver. The Punjab government is also not seemed to be making any worthwhile efforts to reach out to any airline with a good business plan for the starting of flights from Amritsar. All what we see is media hullabaloo about flights from Amritsar and Chandigarh.
In September 2019, during a meeting with Air Canada officials, we were asked about potential of business class traffic and cargo potential from Punjab. Even some other people in the aviation sector emphasize the same narrative and in addition to this quote that the passenger traffic is not year-round which reduces the profit-margin in off-peak months for any airline.
During recent meeting with Air Canada officials held in May 2022, we had presented detailed data about passenger numbers to/from Punjab and the fact that passengers highly prefer direct flights and are even paying higher fares. We had requested the airline to seriously look at the option for starting seasonal flights for Amritsar during the peak winter season between October and early April, as they had earlier done the same when they had launched flights to Delhi and Mumbai.
Sadly, even though vast majority of passenger traffic in North India originates from Punjab and people are paying high fares, the demand for direct flights from Amritsar hasn’t been fulfilled so far, neither by Air India nor by Air Canada.
On the other hand, the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation is also not allowing any changes in bilateral air services agreements between Indian and different other countries hence airlines of UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Italy, Germany, Turkey, and various other countries are unable to start flights to Amritsar.
Recently, UAE authorities had requested India to add Amritsar along with 7 other airports in the bilateral air services agreement so that Emirates can start flights to Amritsar, but the Indian Government has remained non-committal so far. Due to this, one-stop connectivity via Dubai is not possible and Punjabis are forced to fly mostly from or via Delhi.
In the meanwhile, it is a matter of grave concern about the youth of Punjab being so eager to go to Canada after completion of their Grade 12 education, that such high-ticket prices and higher tuition costs in Canadian colleges/universities are not in any way stopping them. With the ever-increasing number of students migrating to Canada and Australia after completing 12th grade, the universities and colleges in Punjab are finding it hard to fill their seats.
Fly Amritsar Initiative has been continuously working on all available avenues, pitching in with its earnest efforts for the start of flights from Amritsar by reaching out to various airlines. This new data with pictures etc. will make our request stronger. It has been reported in the media that Air India is planning to get wide-body aircrafts for expanding its network to North America in near future. We sincerely hope that the airline in its expansion will launch direct flights from Amritsar to Canada in the coming months.
The FAI is again fervently requesting the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Punjab, and Canadian Parliamentarians, to kindly take up the matter of direct flights through their official channels directly with Air India and write to them drumming support for the cause.
Currently, Air Canada has partnered with Qatar airways to connect Toronto – Doha flights conveniently with Doha-Amritsar flights, with a layover of only 2-3 hours at Doha. Also, Scoot and Singapore Air is providing connectivity from Amritsar to Vancouver via Singapore. Due to limited number of flight options available, passengers often complain about high fares on these routes. Canadian citizens have an extra advantage of being able to fly via Seattle, Chicago, and other airports in USA close to Canadian border by Qatar Airways flights to Amritsar via Doha.
The huge support of Punjabi diaspora to support the campaign for direct flights between Amritsar and Canada will definitely bring positive results in near future. They need to continue to give priority to flights for Amritsar Airport even if they have to travel via Delhi or other connecting destinations.
About the author:
Sameep Singh Gumtala is Global Convener of the FlyAmritsar Initiative, a civil society campaign for direct flights & development of Amritsar Airport. He is a US resident, regularly writes about Punjab, its diaspora and connectivity of Amritsar, Punjab with the World.
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