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Flight re-route poses fare question

New Delhi, July 18: The downing of Flight MH-17 is expected to force airlines across the world to reassess routes over trouble spots and decide whether they would charge more for the longer flights that will burn more fuel.

Air India and Jet Airways claimed they had re-routed their flights to several destinations in Europe almost three months ago to avoid strife-torn eastern Ukraine.

Air India, the national carrier, said it had diverted the route of its flights to London and Paris when the conflict in the area first flared up.

Jet Airways scrambled to soothe fears by posting a note prominently on its website that said its planes did not fly anywhere near Ukraine.

“Jet Airways would like to assure its guests that none of the Jet Airways flights to and from Europe fly through the Ukrainian airspace ever since the conflict began, and we continue to avoid the Ukrainian airspace in the prime interest of the safety of our guests,” it said.

Flight-tracking services today showed dense traffic to the west of Ukraine and light traffic to the east but very few planes over the country.

The two Indian airlines will have to spend a lot more money on the extra fuel needed to make that detour but haven’t yet decided to raise fares.

Analysts say that more and more airlines will now start avoiding conflict zones — and there are many, including Afghanistan, in India’s vicinity — which would ramp up operational costs as they devise new routes.

Since fuel accounts for almost 40 per cent of costs, airlines tend to take the shortest route between destinations. Minor diversions are permitted and are usually dictated by weather conditions. A wide detour can make routes unprofitable and increase flying time by at least half an hour.

“Any detour is an expensive proposition. It can on an average cost the airline anywhere between Rs 30 lakh and Rs 40 lakh per flight over and above the total operating costs. The costs are a result of the extra fuel spent on the new routes, the time that an aircraft is in the air and other points that jack up the cost per flight. On an average, an airline spends around Rs 1 crore per flight,” said Robin Pathak, a former director of Air India.

If the detours persist, analysts say the airlines will have no option but to raise fares.

“After the directive issued by the directorate-general of civil aviation to avoid the airspace over war-torn eastern Ukraine, the airlines are contemplating new route options to American and European destinations. Depending on the route, the durations of the flights to these destinations may increase. The impact of the new routes on fares depends on the duration of the change but we do not anticipate any fare change initially,” said Sharat Dhall, president of travel booking website yatra.com.

Reports said China’s air regulator had ordered the country’s airlines to re-route all their 28 round-trip flights that pass over the area each week. Thai Airways International had also opted to redirect all six of its routes between Bangkok and European cities.

“No Air India flight near the ill-fated Malaysian plane at the time of the incident,” the civil aviation ministry said in a statement.