Pakistan has denied use of its airspace to Go First’s Srinagar-Sharjah flight, the government officials said on Wednesday.
According to officials, Pakistan’s refusal on Tuesday forced the flight to take a longer route and fly over Gujarat to reach its destination in the UAE.
Go First, previously known as GoAir, had started direct flights between Srinagar and Sharjah from October 23 and the service was inaugurated by Union Home Minister Amit Shah during his visit to the Valley last month.
According to officials, till October 31, the flight was going through Pakistan airspace.
However, Pakistan on Tuesday did not allow the flight to pass through its airspace, and therefore, the service had to take a longer route, going over Gujarat, adding around 40 minutes to the flight time, they said.
There were no specific reasons given by the Pakistan government as yet for refusing the permission to the flight, officials said.
Officials said the flight, which operates four times a week, did not face any issue when it used Pakistan airspace between October 23 and October 31.
There was no immediate statement or comment from Go First on the matter.
This is the first service between Jammu and Kashmir and the UAE after 11 years. Air India Express had started a Srinagar-Dubai flight in February 2009 but it was discontinued after some time due to low demand.
Reacting to Pakistan’s action, former J&K chief minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah tweeted “very unfortunate. Pakistan did the same thing with the Air India Express flight from Srinagar to Dubai in 2009-2010. I had hoped that @GoFirstairways being permitted to overfly Pak airspace was indicative of a thaw in relations but alas that wasn’t to be.” Blaming the Centre, PDP chief and former J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeted “puzzling that GoI didn’t even bother securing permission from Pakistan to use its airspace for international flights from Srinagar. Only PR extravaganza without any groundwork.” Inaugurating the flight, Shah had said the commencement of Srinagar-Sharjah services would boost tourism.
“There are many people from Srinagar and Jammu who are settled in the Gulf countries. There are many tourists who want to come from the Gulf countries to Jammu and Kashmir. The tourism of J-K is going to get a big boost with the commencement of Srinagar-Sharjah flights,” he added.
The Srinagar-Sharjah flight duration is around 3 hours if the Pakistan airspace is used, however, with Islamabad refusing to allow the flight through its airspace, it will be nearly an hour longer, raising fuel and ticket costs.
The Pakistan government, however, allowed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s special flight to Italy to use its airspace on Friday to attend the G20 summit. His return flight from Italy was also allowed to use the Pakistan airspace on Wednesday, officials said.
An airline official said the airline changed its route to avoid Pakistani airspace from Tuesday. Union home minister Amit Shah formally launched the international flight on October 23 when he travelled to Jammu and Kashmir, his first visit in two years.
“It is true that we have to avoid the airspace of Pakistan now. It has increased the time of the flight by around 45 minutes,” the airline official said. The flight now takes 4 hours and 15 minutes. News agency PTI said it will fly over Gujarat.
The longer flying time will eventually make the plane ticket more expensive, he added.
Srinagar international airport director Kuldeep Singh declined to comment on Pakistan’s decision to bar the international flight or the longer route. But he stressed that the flight on the Srinagar-Sharjah route has a “full load of travellers”.
“People are very enthusiastic about this direct flight… We are following all the Covid protocols,” he said.
In view of the response, more flights have been added. “According to the new schedule, a flight will be leaving for Sharjah every day and back,” Singh said. In the initial days, there were four flights a week.
Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and National Conference vice president Omar Abdullah said the decision not to allow the flight to overfly Pakistan was unfortunate.
“Very unfortunate. Pakistan did the same thing with the Air India Express flight from Srinagar to Dubai in 2009-2010. I had hoped that @GoFirstairways being permitted to overfly Pak airspace was indicative of a thaw in relations but alas that wasn’t to be,” he said in a tweet.
People’s Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti criticised the central government for not doing the groundwork before the start of the flight. “Puzzling that GOI didn’t even bother securing permission from Pakistan to use its airspace for international flights from Srinagar. Only PR extravaganza without any groundwork,” she said.
It was in 2009 that the first international flight took off from Srinagar Airport to Dubai after being inaugurated by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. But the optimism did not last long as all international flights were grounded owing to various reasons including objections by Pakistan over the use of its airspace.
Omar Abdullah did anticipate Pakistan’s refusal the day the first flight took off from Srinagar.“Regarding the Srinagar-Sharjah flight that has been announced today – has Pakistan had a change of heart & allowed flights originating from Srinagar to use its airspace? If not, then this flight will die the way the Srinagar-Dubai flight died during UPA2,” he said on October 23.
“Because of Pakistan’s cussed refusal to allow flights originating from Srinagar to use its airspace the SXR-DXB flight had to take a ‘technical halt’ in Delhi or had to fly south & go around Pakistan airspace. This made the flight completely unviable both in terms of cost & time,” he said.