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 republishing the experience of Vivek Mahtani, who recently managed to fly from his extended family in India back to his family and work in London on a repatriation flight with British Airways. The story has been reproduced with minor edits for style consistency. You can follow Vivek on Twitter.
Having been asked by several well-wishers whether my experience had been like the Bollywood movie Airlift (well not quite, I said), I wanted to share my journey from being locked down in Gurgaon, India, for over a month, until my safe return to London, by a British Airways repatriation flight on 27th April, for the benefit of anybody who might be in a similar situation, or for anyone else generally interested to find out. To my mind, this is the way travel will pan out, until a vaccine is found for COVID-19.
At the outset, I’d like to thank the Govt. of India, the British High Commission in Delhi, India (BHCI) & the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, for arranging these repatriation flights. I would also like to express my deep gratitude to the airport ground staff, security and immigration officers, cleaners and baggage handlers at both Delhi and London airports, who put themselves at considerable risk, in order to ensure that people are able to safely return home.
Last but not least, a huge shout out for the stellar BA cabin & flight crew, all of whom were brilliant and empathetic (a special mention is deserved for Philip), helping the old and infirm to the lavatories, and looking after each passenger’s needs while ensuring social distancing and other safety measures (more on that later).
The build-up to securing that coveted seat
While fortunately I wasn’t stranded in the real sense, like many fellow compatriots across India have been, since I was at home with family in Gurgaon; however, my wife and our daughters were in London, so needless to say, I was eager to get back home to them. Upon hearing from a friend about a video on Twitter posted by the Acting British High Commissioner to India – Jan Thompson (Jan & her team have been fabulous under these extremely trying circumstances, coordinating a vast & logistically-complex operation), I promptly registered my interest to be repatriated back to the UK, on the BHCI website, on the very same day as the lockdown in India was announced – 24th March 2020.
Subsequently, there were regular updates on the BHCI’s Twitter handle once the UK Government announced it had earmarked £75M towards repatriating Brits stranded abroad. On 5th April, two flights were announced from Delhi to London for 9th & 11th April (simultaneously flights were announced from Goa & Mumbai). Unfortunately, owing to strict interstate restrictions in place, these two flights were only open to those resident in Delhi, and since I was in Gurgaon, I didn’t qualify to travel on these flights, even though I was only a 20 odd minutes drive from IGI Airport. Because of this, neither could I register myself for the waitlist on the website of CTM (the charter company entrusted with organising the flights).
Then on 11th April, I was able to register with CTM finally, but to make matters harder; the lockdown in India was further extended from 14th April to 3rd May.
Fortunately, on 17th April a series of further flights from Delhi was announced for 21, 23, 25 & 27 April, on which those resident in states neighbouring Delhi did qualify to travel. However, there were quite a few caveats that one had to be aware of – 1) those who registered first, vulnerable people and groups with families would be prioritised, 2) if and when a seat was provisionally allocated for a specific date, there was still no guarantee of getting on the plane, 3) even if the payment had been made, the final confirmation would only be received 12-24 hours prior to the flight – so basically one had to have their bags packed and ready to travel at very short notice.
From 22nd April onwards, I started receiving daily email updates from CTM informing that I was on the waitlist, which made me quite hopeful – and then I finally received that much-awaited email from the BHCI, late evening on Friday 24th April, saying that I had provisionally been allocated a seat on Monday 27th April, soon after which I received an email from CTM to make the payment, which I promptly did.
The fare was £ 544 for the one-way journey on a British Airways operated flight, with a luggage allowance of 2 x 23 Kgs. In light of the £75M earmarked by the UK Govt., questions were raised on social media about this high fare. However, the explanation provided on the BHCI’s Twitter handle was “Chartering special flights involves high costs, and we have a responsibility towards taxpayers. The flights are priced to be as affordable as possible”. Given that US Nationals repatriated from India paid $2500-3000 for their one-way ticket home, I suppose this cost was much more reasonable.
Moreover, an option to apply for a loan, to be repaid once back in the UK, was also offered by the BHCI. Additionally, the ride to Delhi’s IGI Airport was included in the price; the BHCI had made arrangements to pick passengers from a muster point, or in some cases from individual’s homes, through a company called KTC, given that inter/intrastate transport was prohibited – and the BHCI advised using these means of getting to the airport.
Bags packed & ready to go.
On the evening of Sunday 26th April, I still hadn’t heard from CTM till about 6 pm (19 hours before the scheduled departure). However, I had heard from the transport company KTC that they would pick Gurgaon passengers at 6 am at the HUDA Metro Station (which was about a 5-minute drive from where I was), for the ride to IGI Airport. Given that the flight was at 13:35 and given that IGI airport was a short 20-minute ride away, I couldn’t make sense of why the pick-up was so early. However, KTC officials explained that they were simply following instructions from the BHCI. I then sent an email to both BHCI and CTM enquiring if I was on the flight, and promptly heard back from BHCI that I had indeed secured a seat on the next day’s flight, and received the confirmed itinerary from CTM later that night. Talk about travelling at short notice.
In the days leading up to my return, I had struck an online (then offline) acquaintance, with a gentleman on Twitter, who like me was on the waitlist and was stranded in a town nearby Delhi, with his family. Luckily he was allocated seats on the flight of 25th April, so he was able to very kindly give me a heads up on what to expect, right from being picked up by KTC, till his safe return home to the UK. He mentioned, he was picked up very early & dropped off at the airport by 7 am, & since his flight departed only at 1:35 pm, he wasn’t allowed inside the terminal building till around 9 am, which is when the check-in process commenced.
From this, I figured that if I could somehow make my own way to the airport & get there around 10 am, I would be able to reach the airport at a more reasonable hour and also perhaps avoid the queue to enter the building. I discussed the scenarios with my brother-in-law, who very magnanimously offered to drop me to the airport. We figured that since the BHCI had circulated on Twitter, a general letter on their letter headed paper requesting unfettered passage to the airport for anyone in such a situation, a printed copy of the letter, along with the confirmed itinerary, would suffice as bona fide evidence, at the various check-points (including the Haryana-Delhi interstate one), en route to the airport. Moreover, at the rate I was polishing off his exquisite single malt collection, I’m sure he wanted to make sure I was on that flight
I’d like to add here that when I informed the BHCI, I would be making my way to the airport, they advised me to travel using KTC owing to the police restrictions & roadblocks, and, that if I was unable to make my flight, they would be unable to assist me. Thankfully it turned out ok for me. However, I do acknowledge it was a risky bet. I am in no way endorsing that others should make their way to the airport, & would certainly recommend following the advice of the BHCI.
At IGI airport
Donning my N-95 mask, rubber gloves in a backpack (which I only felt the need to use upon landing in London) and a couple of bottles of hand sanitiser, my brother-in-law dropped me off at IGI around 10 am, after what, I am glad to add, was a smooth ride there (we were stopped & papers checked once at a police check post within Gurgaon), after which he made it back home to Gurgaon with equal ease.
It was surreal to see how eerily desolate one of the region’s busiest international airports was. Just before where the queue to enter the terminal building began, BHCI had set up a manned table on which water and snacks were on offer, which was a very thoughtful gesture.
As expected, the queue to enter the terminal building was relatively short. A member of the airport ground staff handed out a self-reporting form (name, address, passport details, travel history, any symptoms, etc.), for completion. Fellow passengers had masks on, and most were ensuring a safe distance was maintained. Just before reaching the top of the queue, a dollop of sanitiser was dispensed on the hand of each passenger, and, oddly, also onto each one’s passport, with a polite instruction to disinfect the passport thoroughly prior to presenting it to the staff at the entry door. We all did as we were told, such is the power of Corona.
Immediately inside the building, there was a desk behind which an official using a non-contact thermometer checked my temperature, he then took the original of the self-reporting form and gave me a copy, which had to be handed over at the immigration desk.
Upon completing this process, I joined a single file queue, although I had no clue what it was for, especially since a pillar obscured the front of the line and there was no one around to ask. About 50 minutes later, I finally reached the top of what I then realised was a baggage-screening queue. Bags promptly screened, I was on my way to the check-in desk, where an affable BA agent checked me in, while I stood a safe distance from the counter.
I did cheekily ask him if my BA Avios Tier status would entitle me to accrue any miles, or perhaps help me get a better seat. He politely smiled and reminded me that this was a “charter evacuation flight” not a commercial one – and that the crew would be allocating seats upon boarding the aircraft. He then informed me that the Business and First Class cabins were not being offered for seating, as the flight and cabin crew were using both since this was an immediate turn-around flight.
So, after being handed my boarding pass with “Free Seating” emblazoned on it, I proceeded through immigration and security check, both of which were swift and uneventful, save for my being asked to step back from the Immigration Desk by the officer as I had apparently approached it too close. The security guards were good-humoured, and joking among themselves what all the fuss over Corona was about. I silently saluted their spirit.
I walked past the sealed-off stores, kiosks & restaurants, towards Gate 19, where the British Airways 777-300 came into sight. I bought a coffee from the only sales outlet in the airport that was permitted to stay open, sat myself down in isolation at a short distance from the gate and waited to board.
I must say social distancing and safety measures were very well adhered to during the entire IGI airport experience – while entering the airport, during the baggage screening, check-in, immigration and at the boarding gate. All staff used masks and gloves – and in fact, some were wearing Hazmat suits.
Onboard BA 9122 (Track Flight here)
I was among the last at the boarding gate, and after thanking the ground staff and security officers, I was welcomed on board by the cheerful uniformed, rudimentary surgical face mask and rubber glove toting BA cabin crew, who ushered me in and informed about the free seating towards the rear. Business-class was empty, except for one member of the turn-around crew. Upon entering the Premium Economy cabin, which appeared full, to my pleasant surprise, I found the first-row middle section aisle seat vacant, which I happily sunk into.
The Premium Economy Cabin was full (2-4-2 abreast), save for a single middle seat in the row behind mine, and as far as I could tell, so were the Economy Cabins (2 sections x 3-3-3 abreast). I would reckon overall there were about 200-220 passengers, (and 20 crew) on board, and there certainly wasn’t any social distancing amongst us passengers. I suppose given the number of Brits stranded in India (20,000 was the number I heard), the cumbersome logistical process and a limited number of such flights, there was no possibility, or luxury, of enforcing some kind of social distancing on board (such as keeping each middle seat vacant).
Fortunately, every passenger on board that I could see was wearing either a surgical mask or N95 mask, and a few also wore gloves. As mentioned earlier, I wore an N95 3M mask, which took some getting used to, and has left a scar on my large nose, owing to the metal wire used for adjustment on the bridge of the nose.
Given that the airport was at a standstill, we pushed back on time. The safety briefing and video took place as usual. A cabin crew member announced that as far as possible, they would adhere to social distancing at all times, that service would be very limited, nobody should get up and walk around the plane or gather in groups, lavatories should be used only if absolutely necessary if anybody needed assistance hands should be raised, & not the call button, and if anybody felt unwell, a combination of using the call button and alerting the passenger in the next seat was the way to go. The Captain announced a flying time of 9 hours.
Given the circumstances, the flight was, as expected – very quiet. The inflight entertainment system was working, but I didn’t see many people using it. Soon after takeoff, a transparent plastic bag containing a sandwich, a chocolate bar, a couple of packets of Cadbury’s buttons, biscuits and a bottle of water was offered, along with tea/coffee or juice. The crew did also accommodate a request from someone for green tea, and requests for additional bottles of water.
Three hours before landing, a hot snack was served, along with another plastic bag containing a bottle of water, biscuits, milk and sugar; the same round of hot beverages and juices was also on offer. I noticed one of the passengers took a packet but then changed his mind, however, the crew said they couldn’t take it back for fear of contamination, which shows they were as cautious as possible.
We landed around 35 minutes ahead of schedule and given that this was a repatriation flight, where on-time performance wasn’t being judged, I was amused and impressed to hear the Captain proudly mention this over the public announcement system; a force of habit and passion for the job, I thought to myself.
I vaguely recall an announcement was also made regarding government guidance for when you return to the UK (do not use public transport, practice social distancing etc.). However, nothing was mentioned about self-quarantining, since there is no government mandate on this.
Heathrow T5 & Home Sweet Home
Disembarking was reasonably quick, although since an elderly lady had unfortunately taken ill mid-flight and was moved to the Business Class to lie down, we had to wait for the paramedics to come on board first (I certainly think Business Class could have been used to seat the elderly & vulnerable passengers of which there were quite a few, especially since there were hardly any crew using it).
I passed through the E-gates very quickly (I noticed there were a couple of immigration officers without masks) and reached baggage reclaim. The bags were being delivered on two separate conveyor belts and took relatively long, by which time all co-passengers had gathered around the belts. I must admit it was here for the first time I felt a little uncomfortable, as quite a few had removed their masks and were crowding around the belts.
Once my bags arrived, I walked through the deserted green channel (duty-free shops were sealed shut), and into a black cab, where I was secure in the knowledge that I could almost maintain the adequate 2 metres distance & have the added advantage of the barrier screen.
I drove home in glorious sunshine on relatively empty roads, and upon getting home, did a joyful Namaste to my wife and our daughters and proceeded straight into self-quarantine.
As I write this, I understand many are still on the waitlist & stranded; I hope they are able to get home quickly to their loved ones.
My thoughts and prayers are also with the millions of migrant labourers in India who haven’t been fortunate to find a passage back home; may they find quick respite and Godspeed to them.
The world has changed, and until a vaccine is found, I think the prudent thing to do would be to travel only if necessary and to adopt some of the measures that I experienced.
Once again, sincere gratitude to all concerned for helping me get back home. And, if you have been, thank you for taking the time to read this voluminous tome, I certainly hope it’s been useful. Stay safe and take good care.
Reproduced with Permission.
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