April 2, 2019 / 10:43 AM / 18 days ago

Pakistan-India tensions ground Afghan travellers

KABUL (Reuters) - Airspace restrictions in Pakistan due to simmering tensions with India have caused airfares to spike for Afghans who travel for medical treatment, education and business.

Pakistan closed its airspace in February after a suicide bomber from Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e- Mohammed (JeM) attacked a convoy in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Following the attack, both countries carried out aerial bombing missions on each other’s soil and their warplanes also fought a dogfight over Kashmir.

The restrictions have forced commercial and passenger flights that connect Afghanistan with India, a major trading partner, to double back west through Iranian airspace and then pass south of Pakistan into India.

The detour extends what is usually a two-and-a-half-hour Kabul-New Delhi flight into a five-hour trip, increasing fuel costs for airlines and fares for passengers.

Many Afghans seek what they see as superior medical care and university education in India. Pakistan’s airspace restrictions come as land-locked Afghanistan has worked in recent years to improve trade links for its fragile economy.

Qasim, 37, a Kabul shopkeeper, travels regularly to India for treatment for diabetes.

The cost of a round-trip flight to New Delhi has doubled to $700, he said, well outside his means.

“All my medicine has finished and I have to go back to India as soon as possible,” he said, adding that some friends had remained in India because they could not afford to return home.

“Can you imagine how difficult it is?”

Abdurrahman Mirzaie, 25, who is pursuing a masters degree in India’s Haryana state, is unsure whether he can afford to return home for the summer break.

“It’s a very bad situation for Afghan people and Afghan students,” he said. “Most of the students who have come to India are not rich and cannot afford to buy tickets.”

Most commercial air traffic has resumed normal operations in Pakistan and major airports have opened but some international routes that normally cross Pakistani airspace remain closed. 

    An official at Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority said on Tuesday that airspace remained partially closed but a decision would be made at 6 p.m. (1300 GMT) about whether to re-open.

    He declined to provide details about which routes were affected.

On Tuesday, Afghanistan-based airline Kam Air and Ariana Afghan Airlines still offered direct flights to India, spokesmen for the companies said.

Ariana, which offers four direct flights per week, has lost $550,000 in the past month because of Pakistan’s restrictions, said customer service manager Sayed Edris Ziwari. Kam Air has lost $1 million in the same period as costs rose and ticket sales fell, said customer relationship manager Muhammad Yusuf Zahir.

India-based SpiceJet Ltd has cancelled its direct flights from Kabul to Delhi. A spokeswoman could not be immediately reached for comment.

India is Afghanistan’s second-largest export market after Pakistan, and the two countries accounted for 86 percent of total Afghan exports in 2016, according to World Integrated Trade Solution, a trade information database developed by the World Bank, United Nations and World Trade Organization.

Afghan exports to India include dried fruits, textiles and carpets.

The restrictions have boosted shipping costs of commercial goods by 66 percent, forcing exporting companies to absorb losses, said Jan Aqa Naweed, spokesman for the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries.

In total, the airspace restrictions have cost Afghan trade companies an estimated $1 million as they shift to longer trade routes through Iran, he said.

“If we suffer losses, Pakistan will suffer losses too,” Naweed said.

Reporting by Orooj Hakimi in Kabul; Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Islamabad and Rod Nickel in Kabul; Writing by Rod Nickel; Editing by Nick Macfie

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