Just after midnight on June 4, there was a call from Pakistan to a flight operations centre at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. The caller was director of Pakistan civil aviation authority.
“Janaab, aap abhi tak jag rahein hain?”, asked the duty officer in Delhi (“Sir, how come you are still awake?”)
“I was monitoring the flight. It has landed safely. Aapko zubaan di thi (We had given you our word). Eid Mubarak”, responded the Pakistan CAA director.
The exchange between the Indian duty officer at IndiGo flight operations in Delhi and the Pakistan’s CAA director took place after the airline’s Dubai-Delhi flight landed in Delhi after overflying Pakistan’s airspace.
This was the first flight by an Indian airline to enter and exit Pakistan airspace after the Sunday evening opening of the Telem entry point into India from the Pakistan side, near Ahmedabad.
Following escalating tensions between India and Pakistan after the 14 February Pulwama attack, all 11 entry points through which aircraft overfly from Pakistan airspace into the Indian side and vice versa had been closed on 27 February. This had diverted flights between South Asia and the west onto longer routes.
The points began opening, starting with Telem, 94 days after all such points between both countries were closed. The closure had hit airlines financially due to extra fuel, fuelling stops, and longer hours for crews. Passengers suffered due to longer flight times.
On Sunday, the first point was opened at Telem from where aircraft fly from Pakistan into India. Four minutes later, Etihad’s Abu Dhabi-Delhi became the first aircraft to resume using this route, at 5.34 pm India time (all timings IST).
But the test case was going to be an Indian aircraft overflying Pakistan airspace. Pakistan suggested it would be better to first operate one flight via Telem before routing more flights through that sector.
That flight was IndiGo’s Dubai-Delhi flight 6E-24, an Airbus A320, on Monday. Headquartered at Gurgaon, Haryana, India, IndiGo (InterGlobe Aviation Limited) is the largest airline in India.
Given the level of tension and mutual mistrust in recent times, IndiGo took no chances. Its Dubai-Delhi aircraft carrying 180 passengers was provided with extra fuel for a longer route in case the flight was stopped at the last minute from using the Telem point. The airline also carried out proper safety risk assessments.
Indigo 6E-24 took off from Dubai at 8.42 pm. Ten minutes before entering Pakistan airspace, the crew contacted the Karachi flight control for clearance. Karachi responded, with: ‘Acknowledged’.
“This meant we were cleared to enter Pakistan airspace,” said the official.
The aircraft entered Pakistan airspace at 9.30 pm and exited into India at 10.40 pm, landing in Delhi at 12.10 am. In the 69 minutes it remained in Pakistan airspace, the conversation between the flight crew and Pakistan Air Traffic Control was purely operational.
The Pakistan CAA director called the IndiGo operations centre when it landed to confirm that everything was ok.
The Indian Air Force had on 1 June, Saturday, removed all temporary airspace restrictions imposed on Indian airspace after February 27. This was one of the first decisions after the Modi government was sworn in for a second term.
By 4 June, Tuesday, IndiGo had routed nine flights into Delhi via Telem crossing Pakistan airspace. Each flight saved 22 minutes of flying time and 1,100-1,200 kg of fuel, observed a senior IndiGo pilot.
The remaining points are expected to open in phases after Eid. The real benefit will come when the entry points near Amritsar-Lahore side re-open, enabling airlines to resume using the shortest possible route at the points. For instance, a London-Delhi flight can overfly via Telem.
Indian carriers, especially cash-strapped Air India, have seen a significant rise in expenses because of being forced to take longer routes due to the closure of these entry points following India-Pakistan tensions.
Edited from the report by Saurabh Sinha, Senior Editor at The Times of India, published 5 June 2019. Email [email protected].