On Monday, Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri slammed the Economic Times for allegedly becoming a mouthpiece for foreign aviation companies and accused them of making misleading claims on the Vande Bharat Mission, a repatriation operation being run by the Indian government to bring back stranded Indians in different parts of the world in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
In a report titled, “Rough weather for those boarding Vande Bharat”, the Economic Times had published various claims targeting the Modi government’s Vande Bharat Mission. In its report, the ET had claimed that those people wanting to come back to Bharat or fly out are more than ‘fed up’ with the Vande Bharat Mission.
Further, the report alleged that the national carrier Air India has been charging exorbitant charges to bring back stranded Indians from different parts of the world. The report claimed that Air India is ‘getting flak’ for what customers say exorbitant and arbitrary pricing and a poorly run website.
“Many customers are clamouring for the government to allow more airlines, including foreign carriers to operate scheduled repatriation flights from overseas,” said the ET report while batting on behalf of private and foreign airlines to be allowed to run flights to repatriate Indians.
According to ET, the charges for an economy class flight ticket under Vande Bharat Mission from Delhi to Houston starts at Rs 1.03 lakh, which is twice of normal economy class fares. Similarly, Delhi-Toronto and Delhi-Vancouver tickets are priced at Rs 1.07 lakh. The ET claimed that the flights to the US and UK are at least 50 per cent higher than the normal fare.
The ET also made random allegations such as random fare hikes, non-responsive, slow Air India website, higher fuel charges etc against Air India to discredit the Vande Bharat Mission.
Union Civil Aviation Minister responds
Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri on Monday took to Twitter to respond to the allegations made by the Economic Times in its article. Calling it a ‘new low’, the Civil Aviation Minister Puri gave a point-to-point explanation debunking all the claims made by ET in its report.
Accusing the ET of becoming a mouthpiece for foreign airlines, Union Minister Puri asked ET who were these people who are ‘fed up’ with the Vande Bharat Mission. “Are they the nearly 70,000 people who have returned to India or the more than 17000 who have flown out?” Hardeep Singh Puri questioned Economic Times for their misleading report.
The Minister asked whether people who booked nearly 22,000 online tickets to US-Canada within few hours of opening of bookings or the 22,000 Indians who intend to book their tickets for the returning flight are the ones who are ‘fed up?’
Are those who booked 22K online tickets to US-Canada within few hours of opening of bookings on 5/6 June, or the 22K who will book their tickets when return bookings open up tonight, the ones who are ‘fed up?’ pic.twitter.com/6yRJiirnOn— Hardeep Singh Puri (@HardeepSPuri) June 8, 2020
Defending the prices of flights under VBM, the Union Minister said that charges for tickets under the Vande Bharat Mission are lower than some of the charter repatriation flights offered by foreign airlines.
“VBM (Vande Bharat Mission) charges ₹13K per passenger on Gulf routes & planes fly empty on one leg. According to information in public domain pvt carriers/charters are charging upwards of ₹20K for same,” Puri said on twitter.
“Similarly, the fare on flights to Houston, as engaged by the concerned embassy, was ₹3 lakhs, while our citizens pay ₹1.03 lakhs on a flight to US under Mission Vande Bharat,” he added.
On flights between India & Canada, our citizens pay ₹1.07 lakhs as compared to ₹1.62 lakhs to Toronto & ₹1.84 lakhs to Vancouver charged by charters organised by the concerned embassy. pic.twitter.com/YEYcmAKynb— Hardeep Singh Puri (@HardeepSPuri) June 8, 2020
The minister also said that the travelers to Tel-Aviv paid ₹82,500 on the charters organised by the concerned embassy while Indian citizens pay ₹51,938 on flights under Vande Bharat Mission.
The Aviation Minister added that Air India has not overcharged for tickets and said that the national carrier is charging much less than the current commercial fares.
Similarly, outbound passengers can book on Mission Vande Bharat flights or can utilise the services of Indian private carriers operating charter services.— Hardeep Singh Puri (@HardeepSPuri) June 8, 2020
Explaining the rationale behind the flight charges, The Union Minister said, “Civil Aviation operations cannot but reflect the costing. Normal operations are different from evacuation operations. Aircrafts have to be parked for upto 40 hours on long haul routes before the return journey during Vande Bharat Mission. There are other costs involved as well.
“Please remember that unlike special charter, AirIndia is charging these fares for scheduled flights & earning revenue both ways. The journalist should have cross-checked that while 70K people returned, only 17K odd flew out. Many of the flights are going empty,” he added.
The Minister also added that AirIndia is operating flights at cheapest possible rates. The citizens of India returning from abroad have a clear choice, one they can utilise the flights under Vande Bharat Mission, or, they can utilise the services of pvt Airlines operating charter services, which are much costlier.
Regarding the claims of a slow website, Puri stated that attached screenshots, rather than random statements would have erased all doubts.
The Vande Bharat Mission
Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) is a major repatriation exercise by the Indian government to bring back Indian citizens stranded abroad amidst the coronavirus-induced travel restrictions.
Under VBM, Air India Ltd and its subsidiary Air India Express have repatriated thousands of stranded Indian citizens from various nations after the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent lockdowns in several nations.
So far, National carrier Air India Limited and its subsidiary Air India Express have brought 66,831 Indians from abroad on 365 flights on its repatriation flights under the Vande Bharat Mission, while 17,180 passengers have travelled on 369 outbound flights by the national carrier to various foreign nations.
In the second phase, the government of India may allow the private airline to participate on repatriation mission under Vande Bharat Mission.