Why KQ, India air bubble agreement may soon burst


Travellers queue at passport control desks at the JKIA in Nairobi on August 1, 2020. PHOTO | AFP

When a ban on international flights was lifted in August last year, Kenya Airways resumed operations to India under a special arrangement, normally referred to as ‘air bubble’ in aviation parlance.

Before the coronavirus hit, KQ, as the airline is known by its international code, would carry an unlimited number of passengers to India. However, with the resumption of the cross-border flights last year and countries being cautious over new strains of Covid-19, India limited the number of passengers to only 400 a week.

Kenya and India in September 2020 held negotiations on flights in either country once the moratorium on international flights was lifted and agreed on this air bubble arrangement.

In addition to the agreement, KQ said airlines must follow the health protocols set by the two governments. These include preflight approvals for passengers before departure and Covid-19 test certificates and contacts.

“KQ operates three flights a week under this arrangement,” said the airline.

Now, with the cases of Covid-19 seemingly overwhelming India at the moment, the agreement is likely to come to an end as Kenya is mulling putting in place stricter travel curbs to India.

As of Tuesday, India had 17,313,163 confirmed cases, the highest in the world and 195,123 deaths, bringing the healthcare system to its knees. On Sunday, the country recorded 349,691 new cases of Covid-19 infections in 24 hours as hospitals turned patients away due to the shortage of oxygen, intensive care beds and ventilators.

There is fear that unless stricter curbs are put in place, the Indian virus variant could quickly spread in Kenya which on March 26 announced new lock-down measures to control the third Covid-19 wave including restricted travel in Nairobi and four surrounding counties.

Kenya has captured 156,981 Covid-19 cases since March last year and 2,695 deaths.

The government was to decide on Monday whether to join a host of countries in imposing new Covid-19 travel restrictions on flights to and from India as a deadly second wave of infections sweeps the Asian country.

Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe said on Sunday that a crisis meeting of the National Emergency Response Committee had been summoned to discuss and issue an update on India.

A number of countries, including the US, Britain, New Zealand, France, Singapore and Canada have either banned travel to and from India or asked their nationals coming from the Asian country to isolate in government-approved hotels.

Should there be a ban on flights to India, the ripple effect will be felt by local traders as India has emerged as among Kenya’s top export markets. The value of goods hauled to the Asian country rose to Sh3.67 billion in the three months to December 2020 from Sh1.08 billion in the corresponding period a year earlier.

Kenya Airways will also take a hit as reduced flights to India would significantly affect its revenues especially after the carrier stopped flying to the UK, France and limited flights on China route.

Should Kenya stop travels to and from India, then KQ will have to grapple with reduced frequencies and high number of idle pilots that are minting millions of shillings a month.

The national carrier, which recorded Sh36.2 billion losses in the year ending December 2020, said its pilots are only operating 50 per cent of the time in a month following reduced frequencies and underutilisation of the available capacity on to low passenger demand.

Last year, Kenya Airways sought to lay off half of its pilots in a bid to slash costs to weather the cash flow crisis deepened by the Covid-19 pandemic but this was thwarted by a court case filed by the pilots’ lobby- Kenya Airline Pilots Association.