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Pay more for Haj flights

New Delhi, Nov. 12: The Centre has told the Supreme Court it would not be possible to offer Haj pilgrims cheaper air travel as Saudi Arabia had refused to allow more operators on the route and restricted operations to only “designated airlines” of the two countries.

In an affidavit filed before the court, the Centre said it had decided to enhance pilgrims’ contribution as the annual subsidy for the pilgrimage had shot up to Rs 690 crore.

The government justified its decision, saying the current travel cost each pilgrim had to bear was reasonable, given the benefits they got despite rising operational costs.

Last year, each pilgrim contributed Rs 16,000 for the two-way fare, while the Centre paid Rs 55,000 as subsidy.

The affidavit said the government, “in order to reduce subsidy”, had decided to “gradually increase the share of fare paid by the pilgrims”.

It cited inflation, increased fuel and operation costs, and “depreciation” of the rupee against the dollar to say that “it may not be possible to get the charter fares lower than what the airlines have charged in the previous years”.

The affidavit followed an apex court directive on September 21 to explain the measures to provide cheaper air travel to the pilgrims.

The government told the court Greece’s Hellenic Imperial Airways (HIA) had in 2001 emerged as a successful bidder for all the 21 embarkation points for pilgrims in the country following a global tender. But Saudi authorities, the affidavit said, had issued a letter to civil aviation regulator DGCA saying they would permit only designated airlines from the two countries to operate on the route.

“Despite (the) issue being discussed at a government level with KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) they refused to change their stand. The committee (Haj Committee of India-HCI) had to then reissue (a circular) stating it would not permit HIA to carry Indian Haj pilgrims as only designated airlines of India and KSA are permitted to carry pilgrims,” the affidavit said.

Air India and Saudi Arabia’s SV airline and NAS Air are the designated airlines.

The Centre denied fares were higher compared with other private operators. It said Air India had been forced to lease special aircraft to meet the demands of the pilgrim season and was providing additional benefits such as allowing 55-65kg baggage per passenger, against the 20kg usually permitted, and extra meals before boarding and landing.