Testing times: United indefinitely suspends Delhi flights over RT-PCR of crew members


United, the only US carrier that flies to India currently, has nonstops between Delhi and Newark, San Francisco and Chicago. (File photo)

NEW DELHI: United has temporarily suspended all flights between the US and Delhi, following confusion over RT-PCR testing requirement of crew members. Its New York (Newark)-Delhi flight UA 801 landed here on Thursday night.
A disagreement on testing for crew of this flight — who were not alighting from the Boeing 777 and were to fly back to Newark — saw the airline deciding to take off from here without boarding passengers who waiting to do so at IGI airport.
“A government (not aviation) official insisted RT-PCR test be conducted on the crew of UA 801 that was to fly back as UA 802. This despite clear orders from the aviation ministry not to do so for asymptomatic crew of quick turn around (QTA) international flights who do not alight from aircraft and fly out of India. This disagreement saw the United flight leaving for Newark without boarding passengers,” said sources.
In a statement, United said: “As we seek clarity regarding Covid-19 travel requirements to India, we have temporarily suspended service to Delhi for April 22 and canceled the corresponding return flights. We are working to provide alternate options to our customers and plan to resume our scheduled service as soon as possible.”
United, the only US carrier that flies to India currently, has nonstops between Delhi and Newark, San Francisco and Chicago.
Suspension of these flights is a big blow to India-US connectivity during the pandemic as soon-to-be-privatised Air India is the only other airline that has directs to US destinations like New York JFK, Newark, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington. Apart from the Delhi flights, United only has a Mumbai-Newark connection.
The aviation ministry said it has been getting requests from airlines to exempt pilots operating international flights from RT-PCR tests, which is not allowed as per current norms here. However, it made an exception for crew of QTA international flights who do not alight from aircraft.
“Considering that cockpit crew remain within aircraft in a sterile environment of the flight deck and the cabin crew are protected by PPE, these crew operating international QTA flights are exempted from RT-PCR test on arrival at Indian airports,” says an order issued by aviation ministry joint secretary Usha Padhee this Tuesday.
Despite this, sources said the United crew — all of who were to remain inside the aircraft and fly back to New York — was asked to undergo the test. So they decided to fly back without boarding passengers! Sources said stranded passengers are being sent on other flights to Europe on Friday night so that they can fly further on to US.
Meanwhile, some foreign airlines operating medium and long haul nonstops to India are leant to be planning to add a stopover on their flights to India closer to the country.
The idea: Have a crew change from there to operate the flight to India and then out of India to avoid their crew being exposed to the new virus strain by staying over here.
Some international airlines have sought separate fast lanes and exit area at IGIA for crew to avoid them getting exposure risk in the common arrival hall.