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Bilateral Air Bubbles

  Jul 18, 2020

Bilateral Air Bubbles

India mulls bilateral air bubbles — what are they, and what are the risks?

India has proposed establishing air travel “bubbles” with several countries including the United States, Germany, and France on the lines of “air bridges” or “Covid-safe travel zones” that have been conceptualised by countries that have managed to fully or partially contain the outbreak. 

The Ministry of Civil Aviation is negotiating the setting up of travel bubbles to restart scheduled international passenger flights — however, a number of factors could end up pricking the bubble even before it is formed.

 What are travel bubbles?

The concept of a travel bubble, or an air bridge, is reciprocal in nature, which means that both sides — the departure point and the arrival point — have to be on board. It also means that travel restrictions such as quarantining or testing of passengers have to be discarded among the countries in the bubble.

While quarantining and testing of passengers have universal appeal, some jurisdictions are talking of “bubbles” or “air bridges” joining states that have largely eliminated the virus, and who trust in each other’s testing and case numbers.

Are there any countries that have implemented the same or are thinking in the direction?

Yes, for instance the Baltic countries of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia have created a bubble allowing free travel among themselves, while restricting outsiders.

Australia and New Zealand could lead the way with a proposed “Covid-safe travel zone”, or the trans-Tasman bubble. 

Small countries in the Pacific including Fiji and the Cook Islands, which have kept the virus at bay, could join in, with the zone being expanded to other jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan

What is India’s proposal?

The Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation said that it was looking at the possibility of establishing bilateral arrangements. This was on account of moving away from controlled and managed aviation evacuation of Indian citizens in different parts of the world and foreign nationals from India like of India-US, India-France, India-Germany, India-UK. These are all destinations where demand for travel has not diminished. Final decisions pursuant to negotiations are expected to be taken soon,” the Ministry said in an official statement.

What could be the hurdles for this proposal?

The finalising of travel bubbles could be a huge step in the direction of resuming scheduled international air travel, which has been suspended for three months now. But a lot depends on the destination country’s perception of India in terms of being a Covid threat.

Moreover, Indian government’s move to allow outbound commercial travel on flights meant to repatriate Indian citizens without allowing reciprocal benefits to some countries like the US and France could have resulted in sentiments turning sour in these countries.

What are the risks involved?

Countries which have successfully tackled the pandemic may involve risk of resurgence for instance ,New Zealand, which had successfully controlled the spread of coronavirus with zero fresh cases for weeks, relaxed the restrictions on travel into the country, only to almost immediately start recording new cases. Following this, the country tightened border restrictions again.