If all goes well, the planned twice-a week direct Air India flights between the two cities will be the first since British Airways moved out of the sector in March 2009 after AI’s withdrawal in September 2008.
“AI is set to operate direct flights between the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata and Heathrow Airport in London on a regular basis between September 16 and October 24. These are part of the Vande Bharat mission flights, primarily to repatriate Indian citizens but will also carry those with long-term British or Indian visas with urgent travel needs,” an AI spokesperson told TOI.
The Bengal government, which has not allowed Vande Bharat flights till now, has indicated that it may give its nod. “CM Mamata Banerjee herself has been lobbying for a Kolkata-London direct link,” a senior official said, explaining the likelihood of a go-ahead from the Bengal government. Flyers from London would have to undergo an RT-PCR test prior to boarding and furnish Covid-negative certificates on arrival, officials added.
Twelve pairs of flights have been scheduled to start with but officials say they will continue to operate and become part of the bubble agreement between the UK and India. The introduction of a London-Kolkata flight has been in the works since February, when senior AI officials met travel industry representatives. The AI team then spoke about the possibility of flights being re-introduced around September-October.
“We are very excited about the flights and what they mean for business and tourism in Bengal in future. It will, right now, be a huge relief for Indians stranded in the UK and Bengalis residing there who come home during Durga Puja every year,” Travel Agents Association of India chairman (east) Manav Soni said.
Travel Agents’ Federation of India chairman (east) Anil Punjabi said response had been very positive. “The flights are on the global distribution system that allows travel agents to sell tickets. We are glad AI has introduced the flight and are committed to support it,” he said. A Kolkata-London flight ticket has been pegged at around Rs 35,000 and the London-Kolkata leg is priced at around Rs 38,000. The Kolkata-London flights, according to plans, will operate on Thursdays and Sundays and the London-Kolkata flights will operate on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
AI operated three repatriation flights between London and Kolkata since April-end. It scheduled two more flights before the July 12 flight from London was cancelled after the Bengal government refused no-objection certificates to repatriation flights from July 1.
The government has allowed repatriation charter flights from August 8, with only Covid-negative fliers allowed on board. There have been several flights from the Gulf but none from Europe, the United States or South-East Asia.