Due to the CoronaVirus and the sudden closure of borders, many people across the globe are stuck away from their jobs and their loved ones. We are publishing the experience of one such reader, who was visiting his family in India from the US when flights were shut, and the Indian borders were closed down. The story has been reproduced with minor edits for style consistency. Balajee VenkataRaman, who is a long-time reader, wrote up his story for everyone to be well-prepared to fly through the pandemic.
I am an AvGeek and always been looking forward to flying whenever I get a chance. Airports, aircraft, and airlines amuse me. There was not a point in time where I was scared of flying or thought twice to plan on one. However, the CoVid-19 pandemic seems to give no one a breather. I had travelled to India from the United States for a family event in March 2020. It was still termed an epidemic, and I was all excited for my first A380 journey on Emirates. However, as the cases started to increase the day before I was leaving the US, the new normal already had begun.
I wore face coverings, took hand wipes to sanitize the seat, and all the surfaces in and around the seat, and in general, I wanted to stay away from the rest. I was supposed to travel back to the United States on the last flight before the lockdown from Bangalore, however, decided against it as the cases had started rocketing in the US, and it was not essential for my presence for at least two months. I was hopeful of a better state and decided against the travel, rebooking myself for May 11.
Things only became more uncertain, with the United States announcing travel bans (to the EU), India banning scheduled air operations as the lockdown started extending. I was on all tabs to track the re-opening of airspace and was monitoring routes online to track any schedules. However, slowly the hope of the commercial international flights opening up became bleak.
Around the last week of May, it became clear that either a chartered flight or a miracle was required for me to get to the US before May 25. Slowly groups started forming of people who wanted to get back to their livelihoods, careers, and education. Finally, passengers were allowed to be flown on the special flights of the VandeBharat mission primarily tasked to bring back Indians from other countries.
I am based in Bengaluru. Phase-I flights had outbound scheduled ex-BOM/DEL to the USA, because of the flight and crew bases, and there was little time for me to go by road. I had passed on this and was hopeful on a Phase-II. Many of us were continuously contacting with insights into the operations at Air India, and surprisingly, all were responding and communicative.
The flight schedules were being looked upon as exam results for the stranded persons in India. Apart from the schedule, there were also other concerns such as specially-imposed visa terms and restrictions by Air India on the passengers which seemed to be a precautionary measure, perhaps partly because Air India did not have any empty seat back on the Vande Bharat Mission.
Finally, after multiple follow-ups, Air India’s offices informed us that the bookings would open on May 14 at 1700 hours and the schedule would be put up at 1400 hours. Our hopes went in vain, and all flights to the US were ex-DEL and not even BOM. I was all set to book the May 22 flight from Delhi to San Francisco as it gave me enough time even if I wanted to hit the roads to Delhi. There was little hope that domestic connections would be there, as the MoCA and AI officials acknowledged the demand of feeders from the south.
As the clock struck 16:45, flights started showing up, and I was one of the first to buy three tickets (2 for my friends) for INR 1,03,000 per passenger. I was satisfied as in Phase-I tickets were sold mainly at INR 1,40,000. Within 15 minutes, both 18/22 May tickets sold out! People did not think twice to book a business class ticket as well. Probably within the next 45 minutes, all the seven flights scheduled to the USA in Phase-II sold out. I used my US-issued American Express Green Card to make the booking (0% Foreign transaction fee, 3X MR points) and the transaction was smooth. I got the tickets in my inbox within the next minute or so.
One observation was that people who tried to seat select or add their FFP number during booking in these special flights could not book the tickets and one of them went from losing an economy ticket and ended up buying a First Class ticket at INR 4,00,000! Desperate times call for drastic measures!
Now since the tickets were booked from Delhi, we again started making calls to Air India to help us get from Bengaluru to Delhi or arrange a feeder flight. On May 15, we got early signs from Air India that there might be a possibility that a BLR-HYD-DEL flight would be opened up for booking. Soon, I started collecting information of all ex-Bengaluru passengers and coordinated with the local Air India office to get this sector added. We were asked to email minimal documentation and an online bank transfer confirmation (for Rs. 5000), and we received the amended ticket with a Bengaluru-Delhi hop added by May 18.
DGP Karnataka was very helpful in answering questions about travel passes to the airport and even passengers arriving from places such as Chennai. It was clear that the ticket itself would act as a pass. We were informed to be present at least 4 hours before the flight from Bangalore.
The Day of Travel
The flight from Bengaluru was scheduled to be at 10:00. It was the incoming SFO-DEL-BLR (AI174) which was scheduled to carry passengers onwards to Hyderabad before heading back to Delhi. I left home at around 6:00. Only before the airport interchange, we were stopped by the police, and on showing the ticket, we were waived in. I arrived at the airport at around 7:30, and there was a huge queue. Social distancing was duly followed, and we were asked to pass through a bio-sanitization tunnel. Everyone was wearing masks and a few of them PPE kits too.
We were given an Indemnity form (by AI) and Health Screening forms (by Immigration). Before entering the terminal, our temperature was checked and recorded. The security agency, CISF, used a magnifying glass to verify our passports against the passenger manifest supplied to them.
We then proceeded to a counter, where our visa-status was validated, and the Health forms were collected pre-passport control. Passport Control was a breeze, and again all social distancing norms were maintained. Minimal communication with immigration officials was required.
Security check was as before as lockdown. We had to put our things, and the CISF folks were in PPE bodysuits too. Only metal detectors were used, and there was no full-body pat-down. The flight was already delayed by more than an hour due to the delay in the check-in process. The captain requested the process to be expedited.
As I entered the aircraft (Boeing 777-200LR), I was handed an air sickness bag with minimal snacks for the first short leg. There were already passengers on board. After a delay of 1.5hours, the flight took off to HYD. There was no IFE, no service, and it was a different kind of flying. Not to forget, the AI cabin crew were in full PPE.
We reached Hyderabad after a quick 40-minute flight, where some passengers deboarded, and other passengers boarded who were headed to Delhi to catch the connections. Again, we were handed one more snack kit and a visor, sanitizer, and mask.
As I woke up, we were already landing in Delhi, and it was close to 4:30 pm. I was already tired with the mask on just within the two legs. I was thinking about the cabin crew. We must thank them. Air India cabin crew in their saree uniform have their PPE kits on them. As I gentle conversed, one of the cabin crew mentioned, she was in that suit for almost 12 hours (DEL-BLR-HYD-DEL). While thanking the crew, I entered Delhi Terminal 3 after a long time.
Terminal 3 seemed different and quiet. Only those wearing the face shield were allowed to pass through the transit area by the CISF folks. AI officials once again verified the stamp on the passport, and another security check was carried. My boarding pass was stamped. I thought it wouldn’t be stamped because of the recent SOP notified.
While we waited for the next 12 hours at the airport, Cafe Coffee Day was the only store open. Air India provided us with dinner (airplane food). Few Air India employees joined us and shared a few insights into the mission and their stories.
At around 1.5 hours before the scheduled departure, we started queuing up at the boarding area. Masks and face shields were enforced, and before entering the gate area, temperatures were checked, and boarding stamps were verified. Since the flight was full, the gate area was choc-a-bloc full. At around 2:30, boarding started with preference given to Business/First Class and people with infants/children. This was the first time where I encountered two aerobridges used to board the passengers (Business/First and Economy).
It was a smooth boarding, and all of us occupied our seats with masks and face shields on. There was a food package (chapati roll, samosa, cheese sandwich, yoghurt, etc.) and a snack pack with water bottles which was more than enough for the journey.
However, I did not consume any of the provided food and had very little of the food I packed from home, as I slept close to 12 hours on the journey. The experience was so surreal, as usually, I behave childlike in on a flight, but this time I stayed put in my seat (window) for the entire 15 hours and didn’t use the lavatory as well. The window shades were down, and the IFE was switched off (no overhead lights or USB charging as well). This helped sleep comfortably. No pillows and blanket were provided; however, I carried my own blanket, which I had planned to leave on the aircraft.
Before landing, we were issued the CBP Customs form and a health form as well. Ahead of the scheduled time, we landed at San Francisco at 6:40 local time. Since we were early and customs officials were not available, we waited in the aircraft until 7:00. Then slowly, maintaining limited social distancing, we got off the plane. However, once the passport control queue was joined, there was limited social distancing.
It took almost 2 hours for my turn at passport control; however, it was a breeze and took less than a couple of minutes to clear the passport control. The health declaration was not collected, and when I enquired about it, they mentioned, if you are stamped you are good to go. We collected our luggage and headed out to pick out the rental car. I couldn’t believe this is how I would visit SFO airport and it was almost empty. After a couple of days, I took my domestic connection to head to Santa Fe, and it looks like the flights are mostly half-empty, and there are guidelines of health measure; however not strongly enforced.
Having been booked into Y and K class, this itinerary was eligible for 100% mileage credit. I credited to United MileagePlus and received the miles one day after the travel. To be honest, I did not expect this for these special flights. I’m looking forward to silver, as this gave me close to 1500 PQD and 3 PQF’s.
While I usually look forward to air travel, this was not a pleasant journey with the mask, face shield, and other measures. It is difficult, and we must thank all the cabin crew who face these tasks. I took the CoVid-19 detection test, and the nasal swab is irritating and if not painful, and I cannot imagine the cabin crew to go through this every time along with the PPE kit on throughout the journey. My strong suggestion is to travel only if you have to.
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