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 Indian, 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. The name of the passenger has been held back on his request.
The CoVid-19 epidemic has definitely turned things upside down for everyone in the world right now. There are a lot of us who are displaced from our normal habitats due to lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed by governments around the world. India’s lockdown is amongst the strictest. Keeping more than a billion people at home, in a democracy is no easy task for any government and tough times call for harsh measures. However, there are some opportunities for those wishing to travel internationally due to unavoidable reasons.
Having been in India for more than two months now, I was able to get on one of the first outbound repatriation flights from India to the United States of America on May 9, 2020. Below is my experience of travelling from Pune, India to New York, USA on the Air India repatriation flights from Mumbai to Newark.
Booking flight tickets and preparation
There was a lot of anticipation around the end of April that the Government of India would put together some kind of evacuation solution for Indian Citizens stranded abroad, in need of returning to India. Some of these repatriation plans involved Air India flights that would fly empty from their home airport to the destination, pick up travellers and fly back. After several appeals from NRI’s in India wishing to go back to their adopted homes abroad, the Ministry of Civil Aviation allowed us to take these empty outbound flights to several destinations.
On May 5, a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) was released to the media detailing the eligibility criteria for NRI’s wishing to avail of these flight services. These criteria mainly were, no CoVid-19 symptoms being experienced, no travel restrictions from the destination country as well as a one-year visa validity for Indian citizens heading out to the other country. Compared to flights other countries have organized for their citizens, no pre-registration or government selection is required of NRI’s wishing to travel [partly because the repatriation flight would operate from the other direction back to India].
Due to such precedence and a mention in the government SOP of an application/registration requirement, there was a lot of confusion among the public as to how to apply for these flights. Lack of clear communication from concerned authorities also added to the chaos.
Air India, finally opened up booking for these flights on May 6, 2020, towards to evening. Many of us took a risk and booked their flights without any intimation from the government about how to apply/register, or if such a process was required at all. Looking at the number of seats on my flight quickly fill up, I decided to take a risk and purchased one of the last remaining tickets on the flight at around 11:30 pm. [Check how to book a seat on a flight to UK/USA/Singapore/Bahrain/Qatar here]
Other issues included the airline website not accepting international credit cards for payment. Luckily I was able to borrow a credit card from my family to use for booking the tickets. The risk paid off; as by morning, the whole flight was booked and later that day, Air India posted more details of travel FAQ as well as eligibility criteria on their website. People who were waiting on this information were unable to book their tickets as a result. This issue has been addressed now, with proper advisories on the Air India website.
With tickets booked, the next stage was to secure a travel pass from the Maharashtra Police to travel from Pune to Mumbai. This was relatively easy as the Pune Police has put up a website where the public can apply for such passes (this may take a couple of days for approval). However, due to the urgency of my travel I had to visit the office of The Commissioner of Police in Pune to get my application expedited. I submitted an application letter along with details of my flight, visa and a fitness certificate to the officials. The staff at the Commissioner’s office were extremely helpful and issued me the pass within the same day.
Having my tickets and travel pass in hand, I was able to book a cab from a local company to the Mumbai Airport.
Travel to the Airport
Travel from Pune to Mumbai was largely uneventful. I carried all the supplies I needed for the road trip – food, water, wet wipes, masks and gloves, etc. There were no restaurants or restrooms open on the road. A couple of petrol pumps were open for business. Several check posts manned by Maharashtra Police ensure only authorized travel.
Checking in for the flight
While the suggested check-in time at Mumbai Airport was 4 hours prior to departure, I decided to arrive an hour earlier to that to account for additional screening and social distancing measures. So did everyone else. Since the terminal building was not yet open for passengers, I ended up part of a long, serpentine line stretching the length of the terminal. This line did not move for about two hours.
However, as passengers were allowed in after temperature scans and submitting the self-reporting forms, things moved relatively quickly.
Mumbai Airport’s Terminal 2 was eerily empty and no amenities were available pre-boarding.
The boarding process was mostly as usual except for a couple of extra temperature checks and baggage screens.
In-Flight experience onboard AI 191 (Track Flight Here)
Once boarded, all passengers were requested to keep their masks and gloves on for the duration of the flight. Pre-packaged box meals containing dinner, breakfast and some snacks were placed on each seat along with a bottle of water. Passengers were free to eat whenever they pleased and stow away the garbage in the plastic bags under their seat. The package contained helpings of makhana, bhujia sev, pre-packaged cake, sandwiches, Kathi Rolls, cereal bars, peanuts and so on.
There was no in-flight service as the crew, dressed in hazmat overalls are only there to ensure passenger safety and deal with emergencies. One could only get more water bottles on the flight. Minimal contact with the crew is permitted.
Passengers were required to carry their own blankets, pillows, and in-flight entertainment as none of these are available on these flights. Some people were handed out a safety care package with masks and a visor for the flight, but I did not get any. Best to bring your own, in case Air India runs out midway. Some of the toilets were also running out of hand sanitizer and toilet paper, so it would be advised to carry your own.
After about 15 hours of flying, we arrived at New Jersey’s Newark Airport at 8 AM in the morning. The cabin was fumigated before we landed.
On landing, things immediately seemed a lot relaxed compared to India. US immigration just requires 6 feet distance between people in the line. All current US immigration and travel policy are followed. Please check the US Department of State and CDC requirements for latest information.
Once through, I grabbed my bags and took a cab home. Time for my self imposed 14-day quarantine!
Given that international air travel is not going to be normal anytime soon, we just might have to get used to such itineraries for a while. These flights are going to serve as a primary means of travel for those who have been displaced from their usual locations. For that, I’d like to sincerely thank The Government of India, Ministry of Civil Aviation and Air India for facilitating these repatriation flights for me and my fellow travellers. I hope lessons learned from these initial flights help make the passenger experience better for future repatriation flights scheduled by Air India. Most importantly, I express my gratitude towards the flight crew who have volunteered to take up this risky endeavour so that we could get home.
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