‘Unbelievable:’ Travelers are shocked by airfares as India restarts international flights after two-year ban

March 28, 2022, 1:01 PM UTC

India resumed regular international flights on Sunday after a two-year hiatus, leading to a rush of bookings from Indians eager to travel overseas for the first time since March 2020. But soaring jet fuel prices due to Russia’s war with Ukraine and limited flight capacity mean passengers are paying three times the normal fare for flights in and out of India. 

When India imposed its first COVID lockdown in March 2020, it suspended regular international flights to help slow the virus’s spread. It only allowed travelers with special circumstances—like Indian nationals stranded overseas or foreign nationals holding medical visas—to enter the country under travel bubble pacts. India disbanded the bubble pacts on Sunday as regular flights restarted following a sharp drop in COVID cases.

Ticket prices had skyrocketed to three times as high as pre-pandemic fares when the bubbles were in place, and the resumption of regular flights has brought only marginal relief. The cheapest one-way flight from New Delhi to Paris on March 30 costs around $590, whereas prior to COVID, a round-trip ticket cost $660 to $750. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed Brent crude oil prices to a near decade-high of $116 per barrel. That spike has driven jet fuel prices up 50% since January, and airlines are passing the cost to customers.

To be sure, high airfares are not unique to India. Jet fuel prices have risen by about 45% to $3.29 a gallon globally this year, putting pressure on airlines to raise prices. Earlier this month, United Airlines said it would reduce flight capacity due to fuel prices, global instability, and the cost of supplies. 

Jet fuel prices in India are already among the highest in the world due to steep taxes and elevated base prices that are fixed by the state-run firms that distribute the oil. Fuel accounts for nearly a third of airlines’ operating costs in India, compared to about a quarter elsewhere. 

Limited flight capacity is contributing to higher prices too.

India’s aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, said in a statement that 60 international airlines from 40 countries will operate 1,783 flights per week to and from India from March 27 to Oct. 29. Prior to COVID India was operating 2,331 flights per week. India has flight services agreements with 117 countries so the number of flights will tick up as international airlines restart flights to and from the subcontinent, a senior official at the DGCA told Fortune.

India’s leading carrier IndiGo said in a statement that it will resume regular flights to over 150 routes—including to and from Kuwait, Singapore, Bangkok, Kathmandu, and Maldives—in a phased manner through April.

So far, high prices have not seemed to deter travelers desperate to hit the skies. Most flights to the U.S., Canada, and European destinations like Paris and London are already fully booked 30 days out. 

“I bought a ticket for my friend’s son this week from New Delhi to Canada and paid INR 157,000 [$2,060] on Polish Airlines just because the child has to join college. The prices are unbelievable,” says H.S. Duggal, owner of travel firm Minar Travels, who estimates the same ticket would have cost no more than INR 70,000 ($918) prior to COVID.

Rajeev Kohli, managing director at Creative Travel and a member of the Confederation of Indian Industry’s Tourism Committee, said he expected the price of international flights to return to pre-COVID levels gradually over the coming month or so as airlines work to meet demand. 

“We are already seeing an uptake in requests for air travel from all over the world. It was pretty much close to zero before,” says Kohli.

Restarting international flights now means tour operators can cash in on peak travel from India between April and June when schools and colleges are usually closed for summer break.

Tourism accounts for around 9% of India’s GDP, and the sector is one of the largest employers. Before the pandemic, India earned around $30 billion annually from foreign travelers visiting the country.

India does not have any restrictions for fully vaccinated travelers arriving in the country, although some passengers are being tested at random on arrival. Daily COVID cases in the country fell to 1,685 on Monday, down from above 333,000 on Jan. 22, when India’s Omicron outbreak reached its peak.  

A fresh wave of COVID in China and South Korea have sparked worries about a possible fourth COVID wave in India, but Indian tour operators argue that clamping down on travel will only harm the country’s economy because high vaccination coverage has minimized the risk of deaths and hospitalization.

Around 94% of India’s adult population has received at least one vaccine dose, and over 80% have both doses. India on March 11 opened vaccinations for children ages 12 to 14, after providing at least a single jab to 70% of those in the age group of 15-18 years by end-February.

“Even if there is another COVID wave, we should not shut down the borders,”says Jyoti Mayal, president of the Travel Agents Association of India, citing India’s high vaccination rate. “We should move forward with normal travel,”

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