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This article has been written by Diksha Bhargava pursuing the Diploma in Business Laws for In-House Counsels from LawSikho. This article has been edited by the first evaluator Aatima Bhatia (Associate, Lawsikho) and Dipshi Swara (Senior Associate, Lawsikho).

Introduction 

Coronavirus has changed the way we live our lives, almost everything around us has changed since the COVID-19 outbreak followed by lockdown has certainly put our travel plans to a stop. To curb the outbreak of the virus in India the Government imposed a blanket ban on all commercial international flights from March 22. Initially, the ban was for a week but due to the severity of the Pandemic, the ban is still intact in 2021. However, to rescue Indians who were stranded aboard because of the pandemic and lockdown, the Government introduced the Vande Bharat Mission(VBM). It’s a repatriation operation that aims to bring back stranded Indians from different parts of the world. Later the Government under its VBM introduced a bilateral agreement to make international travel possible. Passengers are allowed to travel between two countries under this agreement under specific restrictions and Visa categories. 

India has been able to sign air bubble agreements with 28 countries however so far, India has managed to resume international flights under the air bubbles arrangement with 18 countries only. These counties are the US, the UK, Bhutan, Ukraine, Japan, Qatar, Germany, Kenya, Nigeria, the UAE, Iraq, Canada, Oman, France, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bahrain and Maldives. 

However, when India faced the massive second wave in April and May, many airlines pulled passenger flights due to the crisis. As a result, there was a sharp drop in connectivity for passengers. Only Qatar Airways continued to operate flights for passengers from India, requiring a negative test to do so. This allowed many passengers to return home at a time when options were severely limited. This article aims to provide information relating to the air bubble agreement between India and Qatar. It also gives out the meaning of the air bubble and how it is different from the Vande Bharat Mission.  

Meaning of air bubble 

Air bubble is a bilateral agreement that is temporary in nature between two countries for the purpose of restarting commercial passenger services while the international services are suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a special agreement devised between two countries to facilitate seamless travel with a set of regulations and restrictions. These countries agree to schedule flights that are specially approved by the countries. It is also a method of border control through which countries who perceive each other to be safe allow air carriers of both countries to fly passengers either way with few restrictions. 

Difference between Vande Bharat Mission and air bubble agreement

One might confuse Air bubble flights with Vande Bharat Mission Flights but they are very different VBM flights don’t operate on a recurring schedule, they operate on an ad-hoc basis, which means they are arranged by the government for specific purposes. These flights are mainly run by airlines such as Air India and Air India Express. The VBM flights operate periodically, depending upon the requirement and bookings.

Air bubble agreement between Qatar and India 

India has created an air bubble with the State of Qatar during the pandemic. Indian carriers and Qatar Airways are permitted to run their flights between India and Qatar with an aim to restart commercial passenger services while regular international flights are suspended, due to CoronaVirus. The air bubble agreement between the two countries came into force on August 18, 2020. Indian Civil Aviation General Directorate issued an order regarding this on August 15, 2020

Categories of person who can travel through such flights 

These flights are classified into two parts: 

  • India to Qatar
  1. Qatari nationals.
  2. Any Indian national or national of Nepal or Bhutan destined for Qatar or any country in South America or Africa only and holding a valid visa of the destination country. It would be for the airlines concerned to ensure that there is no travel restriction for Indian/Nepalese/Bhutanese nationals to enter the destination country before issue of ticket/boarding pass to the Indian/Nepalese/Bhutanese passenger; and
  3. Foreign nationals destined for South America or Africa only and transiting through Qatar.
  • Qatar to India 
  1. Indian nationals stranded in Qatar.
  2. All Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cardholders holding Qatari passports, and
  3. Qatari nationals (including diplomats) holding a valid visa issued by an Indian Mission in any category covered under Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) guidelines. 

Developments in the agreement 

As the ban on International flights keeps on extending because of COVID-19, the validity of the air bubble agreement also keeps on extending. 

  1. At first the agreement was valid till October 31, 2020 it was then further extended till December 31, 2020. At that time flights from India to Qatar carried only Qatari Nationals and any Indian national holding any type of valid Qatar visa and destined for Qatar only. 
  2. Earlier this year the India-Qatar agreement was extended for January 31, 2021. It then allowed for  Indians stranded in South America and Africa to use the air bubble arrangement between India and Qatar. Facility was also available to citizens of Nepal and Bhutan.
  3. It is also acclaimed that the agreement between the two countries had expired on June 30, 2021 due to which a lot of confusion was created among the passengers since the flights from India to Qatar were cancelled. However the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said that the ban on international commercial passenger flights between India and Qatar, which was to end on June 30, will remain in place till July 31, 2021.
  4. Now the agreement has been extended for September 2021. The announcement was made via Twitter.

Restriction under the travel bubble rules

Under India’s travel bubble rules, Qatar Airways cannot bridge passengers beyond Doha. The only deviations are made for flight paths to Africa and South America since those are underserved markets from India. 

For all other cities and countries, passengers must fly under the Vande Bharat Mission. It covers countries like Saudi Arabia, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and many more. For now, there seems to be no inclination to restore regular flight links from India.

Importance of the agreement 

Qatar Airways has strong brand loyalty in India. There is a significant Indian community in Doha. With flights suspended for over a year now, there is likely some pent up demand for travel to visit family in both the countries. Qatar Airways do have some competition, but it won over more passengers because of its brand loyalty, and its widespread operations in terms of cities served.

Guidelines for passengers travelling between Qatar-India 

Passengers travelling to Qatar from India

Qatar has divided countries into Green, Yellow and Red as per the level of risk. With respect to travellers coming from these 6 South-East Asian countries, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka and India are subject to the guidelines issued by the State of Qatar on August 2, 2021. These guidelines are:

  1. The passengers must have a RT-PCR test done 48 hours prior to their travel and the test result must  be negative. 
  2. Qataris Citizens and residents who have been vaccinated or recovered in the State of Qatar will be hotel quarantined for a period of two days. After two days a PCR test will be done on the second day, and they will only be let out on the second day if the result is negative.
  3. Passengers including Family visitors, people visiting for work or for tourism, who are vaccinated outside the State of Qatar with a vaccine recognised by the Ministry of Public Health, and passengers who have recovered outside the State of Qatar will be quarantined at the hotel for a period of 10 days.
  4. Citizens and residents who are not vaccinated will be hotel quarantined for a period of 10 days.
  5. For unvaccinated tourists/visitors entry is not permitted.
  6. All the travellers coming to the State of Qatar must register online through the website Ehteraz  except for Qatar citizens and residents till further notice. Passengers will be required to upload official documents at least 12 hours prior to their travel after which they will be issued a Travel Authorization, which will be required to be presented at the time of Check in.
  7. Quarantine exemption is permitted to vaccinated passengers for 12 months which starts 14 days after the second dose. This immunity period is extendable based on new and emerging data.
  8. Passengers who are fully vaccinated as per the approved or conditionally approved vaccines by the Ministry of Public Health of the State of Qatar will have to go through an antibody test on arrival. If the result is positive with antibodies, passengers will be exempted from quarantine otherwise, the passenger must be quarantined based on the country of departure and perform COVID-19 PCR tests upon arrival.
  9. Passengers will be required to present an official vaccination certificate that includes the following information: 
  • Name of the recipient as mentioned in the passport. 
  • Vaccination date clearly mentioned as 1st and or 2nd dose. 
  •  Name of vaccine. 
  • Vaccine Lot Number (if available). 
  • The certificate should have an official logo or stamp of the vaccination authority.

When transiting Doha, travellers must adhere to following requirements

Any Indian national or nationals of Nepal or Bhutan en route to any country in South America or Africa holding a valid visa of the destination country and all other travellers transmitting through Qatar must have a compulsory pre-travel PCR test certificate valid for 72 hours of arrival to Qatar, In case they require another PCR test for their further journey they can do so at Hamad International Airport. 

Passengers travelling to India from Qatar 

India has divided its action for international arrivals into two parts as per the latest guidelines released by the Ministry of Health and Welfare on February 17, 2021. These parts are:

  • Part A- Operating procedures for all stranded international travellers coming to India.
  • Part B- Guidelines for those coming from the UK, Europe and Middle East.

As per these guidelines travellers arriving or transmitting to India from Qatar need to adhere to the following:

  1. All the passengers arriving from Qatar should carry a negative RT-PCR Test report and the test should have been conducted 72 hours prior to the journey. The same shall be uploaded on Air Suvidha Portal. 
  2. They should also submit an online Self-Declaration Form (SDF) on Air Suvidha Portal before the planned travel and will be required to reveal their travel history for the past 14 days. While submitting the SDF they also need to mention-
  • Whether they will disembark at the arrival airport or would take any other additional flights to reach their final destination in India. 
  • The passenger will be required to show the transit receipt of SDF to State authority or Government Officials at the airport for segregation. 
  1. Airlines will allow boarding to only those passengers who have filled and uploaded SDF on the online portal with the negative RT-PCR Test. 
  2. All the travellers will be subjected to mandatory confirmative self-paid molecular tests on arrival at the Indian airport (port of entry). The entry made in the SDF regarding telephone number and address will be reconfirmed. 
  3. Airports will also provide options to the passengers for booking of the confirmatory molecular test online through the website (Air Suvidha portal) or offline through other appropriate platforms. Payments can be made digitally as well.
  4. Transit Travellers who are negative will be allowed to take connecting flights. They will be home quarantined for 7 days and will be regularly followed up by state/district IDSP. After 7 days if found negative after being tested then will be released from isolation, if not then they should be isolated in an institutional isolated facility. 

Conclusion 

The first air travel bubble was implemented by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Even after so many months of the virus outbreak, the total number of cases in these countries is less than other countries. The countries with the minimal number of cases decided to start flights between each other to improve their economy that plummeted during the pandemic.

After these countries started operating, many other countries started to form such agreements with each other after analysing each other’s capabilities of containing the virus. Many countries are resorting to these international air bubbles to revive their economies. Some examples of such are Thailand, Hong Kong, China-South Korea, Thailand–Hong Kong and many more.

Forming a travel bubble agreement between two or more countries is advantageous as it will directly boost the travel, tourism and hospitality industries of the country. A travel bubble is especially instrumental to the worst affected countries. India is one of the worst affected countries when it comes to CoronaVirus cases. India should go for more such international air travel bubble agreements to revive the drowning economy of the country. 

References


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