India to Hike Saudi Flying Rights by 40%

Saudi Arabia is set to become the biggest and only beneficiary of India’s tightly managed foreign flying rights regime with the Centre giving the oil-rich nation a 40% hike in quota from April 1.

The move, which follows the India visit of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman last month, will make Saudi Arabia the only country within a 5,000-km flying distance from India to have its quota increased by the Narendra Modi-led government. Requests for an increase in flying rights by others like Dubai, Qatar, China, Singapore and Malaysia, among others, have been rejected.

Saudi Arabia had announced plans to invest $100 billion in India’s infrastructure sector during the crown prince’s visit. The kingdom also backed India against Pakistan at the recent Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meet. It is also believed to have played a key role in defusing tensions between the neighbours and ensuring the return of Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, whose aircraft was shot down in Pakistan.

According to rules, flights between two countries are governed by air services agreements — also called bilateral flying rights.

The Modi government has been cautious in allowing additional flying rights as this has been a cause for controversy in the past and is being probed by various agencies.

Under the new aviation policy, no country within 5,000 km flying distance from India will be allowed any extra seats unless Indian carriers exhaust 80% of the flying rights quota.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, the utilisation by Indian carriers is still about 74% (barring Dammam), but the aviation ministry expects it to cross 80% by April.

Saudi Arabia has unilaterally allowed Indian carriers to add as many flights as they want to Dammam. If flights to Dammam were to be included, India operates more flights to Saudi Arabia than vice versa.

“The external affairs ministry insisted on implementing the increase in quota on the back of various incentives provided by Saudi Arabia,” said an official in the know, who did not want to be identified.

The official also said the MEA wanted the aviation ministry to consider the fact that Saudi Arabia allows Air India to fly to Israel using its airspace, and that the national carrier is the only airline that is allowed this facility.

The other reason was the oil rich nation’s unilateral decision to allow Indian carriers to add flights to Dammam.

The aviation ministry feels traffic to Saudi Arabia from India is point-to-point and does not impact the plans of Indian carriers.

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