The AI flights from Kolkata to London in January 2022 are almost full with more than 220 seats in the economy class and over 14 seats in the business class booked. With AI flights departing for London from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Amritsar and Ahmedabad also chock-a-bloc in January, the airline had to dump is plans to reschedule the departure of passengers from Kolkata via these cities and instead, decided to deploy an aircraft to do the one-way flight.
“Initially, we had decided to cancel both AI 163 and AI 164 after the Bengal government announced the ban. But we realized that there are very few seats available on London-bound flights from other cities. Accommodating more than 240 passengers every Sunday in other flights from these cities would have been a logistics nightmare. So, we decided to reinstate AI 163 to continue operating on the Kolkata-London sector,” said an airline official. The Boeing Dreamliner B 787 aircraft, on reaching London, will then operate as flight AI 128 from London to Mumbai.
Sources said passengers booked on the London-Kolkata flight would be offered an option to fly to the city via Mumbai or Delhi or any other city. But that would have to be a break journey with passengers alighting in these cities, undergoing Covid test on arrival and then boarding a domestic sector AI flight to Kolkata.
Passengers are relieved at not having to lug their travel bags to other cities and then check them in again before boarding the London-bound flight. Also that would have meant additional complications on rescheduling Covid tests to meet the timeline. “When I learnt about the flight ban on Thursday, I was extremely flustered about how I would return on January 16. Now that AI has assured us that we will be able to fly back directly from Kolkata, it is a huge relief,” said a passenger, who lives in Surrey near London and is currently visiting her parents in Behala.
Travel trade industry officials said single-leg flights, while being rare, are not unprecedented. Through the second wave in India, Emirates and Qatar had operated flights to Kolkata that did not take back any passenger due to the ban imposed by the UAE and Qatar on flyers from India to stem the spread of the Delta variant.
This time, it is the Omicron variant that Bengal is striving to shield itself against. The UK and other countries in Europe as well as the US are reporting a tsunami of Covid cases for the past fortnight even as the Covid case count rises sharply in India.
The interim arrangement will also mean an additional AI flight from Mumbai to Kolkata that will take off at 1.30am on Sundays and touchdown at 4.30am. The flight to London will depart at 6.25am as scheduled.