“The rate and frequency of routes are negotiated between governments. If an airline stops operating a route, then it is up to the government to decide if it should be allocated to another airline. Heathrow airport cannot cancel a route. Air India has been allocated a set number of landing slots and it can decide which routes to use them for. Air India doesn’t have to use that landing slot for Kolkata. But slots have nothing to do with Heathrow airport,” a CAA spokesperson said.
AI had operated the Kolkata-London flight via Delhi on Thursday and has announced that it will henceforth fly to Kolkata as well as back via Mumbai till the slots are reinstated.
“Due to last-minute non-availability of landing/parking slot at Heathrow airport, which was communicated to us late on September 16, the flight from Kolkata could not be operated directly from Kolkata to London. This was something beyond our control as we had been assured of a slot till the sudden communication of non-availability of the same by the Heathrow authorities,” an AI spokesperson had said.
Heathrow airport authorities though denied having anything to do with the slots. “Heathrow does not have the power to withdraw slots. The slots are not controlled or operated by us, there is an independent slot operator that manages that process called the Airport Coordination Ltd (ACL). Heathrow’s role as the airport is to keep the runways and taxiways operational for airlines to use and we did so on that day, none of our other airlines reported any issues,” Heathrow Airport senior press officer Delia Williams-Falokun said.
The airline stuck to its stand in the face of mounting criticism from passengers and scepticism on the part of aviation industry experts. “We are unable to operate the direct flight owing to LHR airport slot constraints and non-availability of approval for landing/take off at LHR,” an AI spokesperson said, but quickly added that efforts were on to restore the direct flight at the earliest.
Flyers who have booked tickets on the sector as well as members of the travel industry expressed shock at the ad hoc changes to the schedule and felt the flight had been mismanaged. “I am requesting Air India to stop misleading customers. Their Kolkata reservation office sold tickets for direct Air India flight to London. But recently, passengers got emails regarding changed/revised schedule with a layover in Mumbai for three hours,” said R K Debray, a flyer.
Travel Agents Federation of India chairman (east) Anil Punjabi said the airline ought to have confirmed the slots before announcing the flight. “What was the point in declaring a direct flight when the operations are via another city?” he wondered. Others felt the re-routing was done on commercial considerations. “AI is operating the flights via Delhi or Mumbai to fill up the aircraft. The current load to and from Kolkata is too low to operate a Dreamliner. Once the load increases, it will fly direct,” said Travel Agents Association of India chairman (east) Manav Soni.