Air India continues to fly daily non-stop flights between Delhi and Vancouver despite the Indian government no longer issuing visas for Canadians.
The visa suspension comes in the wake of escalating tensions between the Indian and Canadian governments that followed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sept. 18 saying that there are "credible allegations" of a potential link between agents of the Indian government and the murder of Surrey Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
The Indian government denied involvement in Nijjar's June 18 assassination and yesterday put the brakes on issuing visas to Canadians.
Not being able to get a necessary visa to enter India could severely crimp demand for non-stop travel to India but Air India continues to fly with the same seat capacity as it has been flying, Vancouver Airport Authority's director of air-service development, Russell Atkinson told BIV.
Air India spokesperson Ronit Baugh confirmed in an email that “there is no impact on our flights to or from Canada.”
Canada is home to approximately 770,000 Sikhs and 1.4 million residents of Indian descent, according to the 2021 census. That is the largest Sikh population outside India. The Lower Mainland for decades has been home to a large Indian community, and people in that community have told BIV that they believe the "vast majority" would need visas to go to India.
India's constitution does not allow Indian citizens to also hold citizenship of a foreign country. There is an Overseas Citizenship of India program that allows people who can prove Indian ancestry and who go through an application process to get a document that allows multiple entries over long time periods but that is not extensively used in Metro Vancouver's Sikh community, people in that community told BIV.
Air India did not comment on potential future plans.
Atkinson said he has not heard of any Air India plans to reduce flight frequency or to temporarily suspend the route.
The airline started flying non-stop between Delhi and Vancouver twice per week in August 2020. It bumped that up to three times per week in October 2021, and to daily in October 2022.
Air Canada first launched non-stop Delhi-Vancouver flights in 2016, on a thrice-weekly basis. They were the first-ever non-stop commercial flights between Vancouver and India.
Air Canada stopped operating those flights during the pandemic, and then resumed flying them between September 2020 and May 2021. It then took a pause and restarted the flights in September 2021. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Air Canada had to alter that route’s flight path so as not to fly over Russian territory.
In order to efficiently and profitably fly the Delhi-Vancouver route, airlines need to fly over Russian territory, said John Korenic, a University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business adjunct professor in aviation.
That's why Air Canada temporarily flew the route with a stopover in Dublin, before axing it in March 2022.
India has retained relations with Russia despite Russia's war against Ukraine and therefore Air India continues to fly over Russian territory – unlike Air Canada and other international airlines.
"I don't think that there's any plans for Air India to reduce [service,]" Atkinson said. "We're already artificially constrained on capacity because Air Canada doesn't have their flights."
Many people who are Canadians of Indian ancestry and who return to India to visit family do not fly non-stop because the price is often higher than flying one-stop. They therefore travel through places such as Taipei, Taiwan.
Atkinson and Korenic said that it is possible that a large number of people who previously planned to travel to India to visit family will not be able to go because they will not be able to get visas.
Some may plan instead to travel to other Asian destinations. If most do not do that, and instead stay home, or travel in North America, there could be a decline in travel between Vancouver and Taipei, which could in turn cause empty seats on airlines such as Eva Air, China Airlines and Air Canada. Pricing on that route has increased in the post-pandemic period, but it is possible that lower demand for those seats could lead to lower prices.
People who have booked flights on Air India but are not able to go because they cannot get a visa may be eligible for at least a credit for a future flight, Korenic said.
"I would like to think that the airlines would give them – and I think it's reasonable – a credit for a future flight, because at some point they will probably want to go [and be able to get a visa,]" he said.
He said that diminished demand for seats on Air India's non-stop Delhi-Vancouver flights could cause the airline to cut back on capacity, particularly if the Canadian government responds with a directive to suspend visa processing for Indians who want to come to Canada.
"I think that there could be an impact [on the non-stop Delhi-Vancouver route] – either fewer flights per week, or they could temporarily suspend the route if the numbers are such that it would really impact the operation," Korenic said.
He added that we are heading into peak season for Canadians to visit India.
In June, 23,429 Indian citizens entered Canada through B.C. entry points, up 0.1 per cent, compared with the same month in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic upended air travel. In the first six months of 2023, 61,057 Indians entered Canada through B.C. entry points, according to the most recent Destination British Columbia interpretation of Statistics Canada data.