The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) has issued an order requesting Indian carriers - effectively only Air India (AI, Mumbai Int'l) - to apply for charter pre-authorisation for each such flight they want to operate to the United States, alleging that the Indian flag carrier is using the false pretence of repatriation flights to bypass the law.

"The Department is taking this action because the Government of India is engaging in unfair and discriminatory practices with respect to charter air transportation services to and from India. This order will allow the Department to scrutinize charter flights by Indian carriers on a case-by-case basis. The Department seeks to restore a level playing field for US airlines," the DOT said.

According to the US authorities, Air India's charter flights, supposedly operated exclusively for repatriation of passengers, amount to 53% of its normal scheduled capacity to the US.

"Considering this rate of flying, and that Air India is selling tickets on the market, the charters go beyond true repatriations, and it appears that Air India may be using repatriation charters as a way of circumventing the Government of India-imposed prohibition of scheduled services," the DOT alleged.

The authority underlined that the Indian ban prohibits any of the US carriers from serving India. Given Air India's alleged "beyond true repatriations" charters, this situation puts American carriers at a disadvantage and creates a virtual monopoly on the US-India market benefitting Air India.

The DOT said it would reconsider its policy once it feels "confident that the level playing field was restored" and the US airlines are again allowed to serve India.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, United Airlines (UA, Chicago O'Hare) and Delta Air Lines (DL, Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson) served India directly from the United States.

Air India has been operating charter flights to San Francisco, CA, Chicago O'Hare, and New York Newark among others as part of its Vande Bharat repatriation strategy.