The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Overflight cloud on air talks

New Delhi, Nov. 25: The Centre today said it would hold talks with Pakistan to revive air links between the neighbours, snapped in a tit-for-tat action in January last year, but expressed fears that Islamabad would try to sabotage the discussions by refusing overflight facilities.

“We will hold bilateral aviation talks with them from December 2,” foreign secretary Kapil Sibal said today.

Civil aviation ministry officials said India wants Pakistan to resume not only flights to each other’s cities but also overflight facilities, needed to connect with Afghanistan and to shorten flight time to Europe.

“But the problem is that Pakistan, as far as we know, wants to ‘cut its nose to ruin our journey’ by stalling on overflight facilities,” an official said.

Earlier rounds of talks, too, have ended in an impasse over overflights and Pakistan’s demand for a guarantee that there would be no future disruption of air links.

Ministry officials said they have ordered Indian Airlines to be ready at short notice to resume operations to Pakistan. “It could be as early as January 1, if all goes well.”

Pakistan has more to lose if the air links remain suspended as all its flights to Southeast and East Asia have to avoid India and fly over Sri Lanka, making them costlier. But Islamabad has consistently refused to agree to overflight facilities, fearing India will increase its influence in Afghanistan by opening direct trade through the air route. Pakistan denies India road links to the nation, affecting trade and relief work.

The decision to stop air links and overflights through each other’s airspace has also meant that all Air-India flights to Europe take about 70 minutes more as they go via the Persian Gulf and the UAE, costing the national airline about Rs 80 lakh extra every week.

Flights to certain West Asian destinations like Kuwait and Damman also take about half-an-hour more because of the new “southern” route that Indian aircraft are forced to take.

Before air links were snapped, Indian Airlines used to operate a flight from Mumbai to Karachi.

In the past, it also operated a Delhi-Lahore flight. An official spokesperson said: “We never shut down our Karachi office and our man in Lahore is still there.”

Desperate over the impasse with Pakistan and the loss of an easier air route, India had earlier even approached China for a safe passage for its jetliners. The government had considered a route over Sinkiang.

Although this has been a restive border province for China and a region that has still not fully opened up to foreigners, Indian officials say they had managed to gain preliminary approvals.

The only problem, they say, was that there were very few airports on the route for emergency landings.

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