MIAMI – In late March 2020, the Government of India announced a lockdown of the whole country, leaving thousands of foreign nationals stranded. Many countries started repatriation flights from Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee International Airport Amritsar (ATQ), including the US, the Netherlands, and Malaysia.

Punjab has one of the biggest diasporas settled in the UK, Canada, and Australia, among other countries. The majority of these Indian citizens visit Punjab during winter and spring months. Before the lockdowns, ATQ was directly connected to nine major international destinations, including London and Birmingham.

The majority of the passengers from Australia traveled via Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia (AK), Malindo Air (OD), Singapore Airlines (SQ), or Scoot (TR). Qatar Airways (QR) also provided convenient connectivity to North America and European destinations. 

With lockdowns imposed on very short notice, thousands of foreign residents were stuck in Punjab. Thus, the complete lockdown kept the holy city airport and its staff busy for the operation of special repatriation flights by many countries.

Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee International Airport, Amritsar. Photo: wiki Commons

First Repatriation Flights from Amritsar Airport

The first repatriation flight took off from the airport for Malaysia, an OD flight to Kuala Lumpur. OD repatriated about 180 Malaysian residents from Amritsar. Soon after, many more countries started special flights from Amritsar.

It was estimated that around 15,000 UK citizens were stuck in Punjab. The UK government started with three flights from Amritsar from the second week of April. Due to high demand, they continued to add more flights. A total of 28 flights operated by British Airways (BA) and QR from April to May 15, 2020, flying around 8,271 people back home.

British Airways was the first UK airline to land in Amritsar and also the first airline to operate a direct flight between London Heathrow (LHR) and ATQ in 10 years. Air India (AI) had suspended its direct Amritsar-London-Toronto flight in October 2010. 

While these UK flights were operating, there was also big demand from stranded Canadian residents for direct repatriation flights from Amritsar to Canada. Initially, AI operated special flights for Canadians via Delhi to London with onward connectivity on Air Canada (AC) to Toronto and Vancouver. 

Amritsar Airport Baggage Claim Area. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Further Repatriation Flights from Amritsar Airport

Later, the Canadian foreign office signed a contract with QR to operate direct repatriation flights from Amritsar to Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) and Vancouver International Airport (YVR) with a technical stop at Doha. QR and AI operated a total of 25 flights to Canada, repatriating almost 7,500 Canadians from Amritsar.

For the first time, the US government also operated a special flight from Amritsar to San Francisco via Delhi, repatriating around 97 passengers to fly home via Delhi on United Airlines (UA). AI facilitated the travel of passengers from Amritsar to Delhi. 

The lockdowns also left many foreign students stranded in Punjab. Bhutan And Sri Lanka repatriated their citizens from Punjab. Bhutan repatriated around 136 nationals on flights operated by Druk Air (KB). Sri Lanka also repatriated around 101 nationals on flights operated by Sri Lankan Airlines (UL).

A total of about 57 repatriation flights were operated from Amritsar, which helped around 16,500 foreign residents reach home. Amritsar airport became the number one airport in India for repatriation flights to the UK and Canada. These flights were also one of the biggest evacuation missions around the World. 

Due to all these repatriation flights, ATQ became the second-busiest airport in terms of handling international passengers in India in April and May 2020.

Air India Boeing 777-300ER. (Credits: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Future Direct Flights to/from Amritsar Airport

Amritsar Airport does not have direct connectivity with LHR in England or YYZ and YVR in Canada. Many Punjabis are asking the question if this data will help world-leading airlines like BA, AC, or even India’s national carrier to start direct flights to any of these destinations from ATQ.

Air India operates a direct Delhi-Toronto flight by providing convenient connectivity to/from ATQ. A direct flight will save both time and money and will be a big economic boost for the region. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines around the world are announcing layoffs to reduce their costs. BA and AC are also doing the same. The present situation at many other airlines around the world is bad, and they are struggling to survive the ongoing pandemic crisis. When the situation normalizes, airlines will focus on routes that will be most profitable for them. 

According to many aviation consulting firms, it will take around four years for the industry to see air travel demand return to pre-COVID-19 levels. With airlines now aware of the demand from Amritsar for LHR and major airports in Canada like YYZ and YVR, we can hope that airlines like BA, VS, and AC will evaluate and consider flying direct to Amritsar in the future.

Article written by Ravreet Singh

Featured image: Entrance to departure area at Amritsar Airport. Photo: Wiki Commons.