By Prabhjot Singh*
A direct flight between Amritsar and Toronto/Vancouver is the one-point agenda for the Fly Amritsar Initiative. For more than a decade this Toronto-based group has been actively engaged at different levels to impress upon not only the Canadian and Indian governments but also the managements of various commercial airlines, including Air Canada and Air India, to airlink “Guru ki Nagri” with Canadian cities that have the largest population of Punjabi Diaspora.
The Canadian Punjabi Diaspora, argues the group, is affluent enough to make all flights from Canada to Amritsar financially viable. Guru ki Nagri is not for Sikhs alone but all other communities by cutting across religious lines nurse a desire to visit the sanctum-sanctorum to pay their obeisance there. The demand to visit Amritsar thus has grown putting the numbers beyond the capacity of any aircraft of any airline touching Sri Guru Ram Dass International Airport in Amritsar.
Sameep Singh, Mohit Dhanju and Anantdeep Singh Dhillon are the main activists of the Initiative.
As of today, 11 airlines operate out of Amritsar to 20 domestic and international destinations with 950 flights a month. But none of these flights directly touch any point in Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Africa and South America.
Since the international civil aviation is largely controlled by Open sky policies and bilateral relations between different nations, air linkages are at times decided more to get the political mileage than watching the fiscal health of the carriers in case they are owned by the State. This formula may not be necessarily applicable on private air carriers who strive for commercial gains than anything else.
Sri Guru Ram Dass International Airport was put on global air map in 1982 when the then national air carrier, Air India, introduced “Balle Balle Birmingham” flight on the New Delhi-Amritsar-Moscow-Birmingham sector. The flight got overwhelming response from the overseas Punjabi community. However, it was discontinued a couple of years later because of the problem of terrorism in the State.
Even after return of normalcy, international flights were not resumed for one reason or the other. The growing demand for international connectivity saw introduction of chartered flights. Most of these were from Great Britain. During the insurgency period, only flight that continued uninterrupted was a cargo flight by Ariana, the Afghan airline.
As the pressure from the overseas Punjabi community grew stronger, Air India experimented with hub and spoke flights linking Amritsar with New Delhi and Mumbai but long lay overs in the union capital were resented by air passengers.
As of now, Air India operates direct flights from Amritsar to both Birmingham and Heathrow, London. There is also connectivity between Amritsar and Singapore, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Doha (Qatar Airways), Sharjah and Dubai. Some private air carriers like Indigo and SpiceJet also operate international flights out of Amritsar. Private air carriers from Malaysia (Malindo), Scoot (Singapore) and Air Asia also have Amritsar on their schedules. Qatar Airways has numbers limitation
under the bilateral agreement.
There are no direct services between Amritsar and the United States, Canada, Southern America, Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, China, Japan, Eastern Asia, Central Asia or Oceania. A market survey conducted some years revealed that nearly 37 per cent of outbound passengers from Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi came from Punjab. A vast majority of these air passengers travel to North America alone.
The growing demand notwithstanding, foreign airlines are still not allowed or encouraged to start their operations out of Amritsar. Because of proximity to Pakistan, officials often cite security concerns for not allowing foreign airlines to operate out of Punjab.
Ruby Sahota, who represents Brampton North, a Riding dominated by Punjabi migrants, raised the issue of direct flight to Amritsar in House of Commons. Later she invited members of the Fly Amritsar Initiative to take the demand forward. She also invited senior officials of Air Canada to interact with the Fly Amritsar Initiative members and a group of community leaders, including journalists, for the discussions.
Sameep Singh, Mohit Dhanju and Amandeep Singh of Fly Amritsar Initiative pleaded for immediate connectivity between Canada and Amritsar through Air Canada. Other Community Stakeholders who participated in the discussions included Jangir Singh Sehmby, President of the Association of Senior Clubs of Brampton, Jagdev Randhawa and Jangir Singh Khalon as Community Advocates besides journalists Kulwinder Chhina of South Asian Voice, Harjinder Thind of RedFM, Rajinder Saini of Parvasi Media. Kultaran Singh Padhiana of Toronto-Amritsar Times and Prabhjot Singh.
* Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events and hosting TV shows. For more in-depth analysis please visit probingeye.com or follow him on Twitter.com/probingeye