The second phase of the Vande Bharat Mission has begun for the repatriation of some 30,000 Indians from 31 countries including USA, Australia, Canada and UAE. With international flight operations continuing to remain suspended because of the lockdown extended till May 31, Indian government’s evacuation flights operated by Air India are the only way for Indians to return home. Most of those who took repatriation flights till date praised the government sky high and said that the whole evacuation process is infallibly systematic and smooth.
The way Air India has been operating the repatriation flights with an understaffed team seems to define the future of air travel post the Novel Coronavirus pandemic, according to the first-hand accounts of special flights to and from India operated in the first phase of the Vande Bharat Mission. The special Air India flights are being operated in absolute compliance with the precautionary guidelines given by the ministry of health and the civil aviation ministry.
In the first phase of outbound Air India flights for repatriation of Indians stranded abroad, two H4 visa holders with kids traveled from India to USA. One took the flight from Delhi to Chicago, and the other from Delhi to San Francisco. Both of them carried sufficient disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers so that they could sanitize the whole seating area including seats, tray holders, seat handles, the window and the bassinet for the infant. After the security check at Delhi airport, they were given a small protection kit carrying a shield mask, two surgical masks and a few pouches of sanitizer.
Since blankets are not provided on special flights, which may be continued as a post-COVID19 air travel trend for some time, they made sure to carry a bed sheet and a blanket for use on board. They recommend it for other travelers. Both of the travelers on H4 visa found pre-packed food boxes and water bottles on their seats after they boarded the flight. They also cleaned the food boxes and water bottles with a disinfectant wipe. The food box had a veg roll, an apple, a samosa, a piece of brownie and some cookies. Kitkat, a cupcake, yogurt, and cheese sandwich were packed in the box for kids.
Carrying some snacks in hand bags is advisable, according to their experience of traveling with kids on Air India’s special flights from India to USA. Food outlets were closed at Delhi airport, except a Café Coffee Day and a liquor shop. The scenario is more or less the same at the US airports where people are boarding repatriation flights to India. No retail food outlet was operating at Chicago O’Hare Airport, according to an Indian returnee.
No luxury of inflight services is available on special flights. Inflight entertainment systems were disabled on board. They suggest carrying some reading materials and personal mobile devices loaded with entertainment content. As the travelers flew with a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, carrying personal devices loaded with children-friendly content was part of their preparation for the special flight.
As special flights to and from India are being operated with limited human resources, helpers may not be there to assist you with kids or bags on ground. They had to fill out health declaration forms twice: before boarding and after landing. Thermal screening of travelers, both departing and arriving, is part of the ‘new normal’ operating procedure at Delhi IGI Airport and the airport in Mumbai. They said that their temperature reading was taken at the time of check-in and before boarding. A traveler other than these two, who traveled from Mumbai to Newark EWR, reported that there was no thermal screening upon arrival. There was neither health checkup nor thermal screening, a preventive measure against COVID19, upon arrival at San Francisco.
Immigration clearance was smooth both in India and USA. They were asked a couple of questions though, like how long they were in India and where they stay in the US. They were advised home quarantine in USA unlike mandatory institutional quarantine for those who repatriated to India from abroad.
Those who are scheduled to travel from and to India in the Vande Bharat Mission phase 2 should reach the airport 4 to 5 hours before the flight departure, as the travelers were able to check in after 1-2 hours of waiting in the long queue during the first phase of the Vande Bharat Mission. Social distancing was strictly maintained on ground, but it was an absolute no on board as middle seats were all booked in economy. There was a little room for social distancing once the boarding gate opened, as people began to rush in.
Those who repatriated to India on special flights from the US, the UK and other countries had more or less the same experience as shared above. They said that there was no extra meal, no in-flight entertainment and no other in-flight service. One traveler of the Chicago to Mumbai flight that was arranged in the Vande Bharat Mission phase 1 opined that patience is critical to having a good experience on special flights operated by the understaffed Air India team in PPE suits.
Wheelchair assistance for senior citizens and passengers having difficulty movement should be requested during or after the booking of Air India’s special flights to and from India. They may not be able to bear the strain of standing in check-in and thermal screening queues for hours. They are advised to request co-passengers to lift bags from the baggage carousel for them, as the airports are operating with limited resources in India.
14-day institutional quarantine is mandatory for all returnees from abroad, irrespective of age. Quarantine facilities vary from budget hotels to five-star hotels in India. Not much information is provided about quarantine before and at the time of booking repatriation flights to India. Upon arrival at the final destination airport in India, a queue is formed for passengers to select quarantine facilities. Once the selection is done, buses are arranged to transfer them to the quarantine facilities. Not more than 14 persons are allowed in a bus. At the quarantine hotels, the throat and nasal swab of the passengers is collected for the mandatory COVID19 test. Some of the passengers reported that they were given snacks en route to their quarantine hotels.
Repatriated Indians have to shell out INR 30,000 to 100,000 rupees depending on hotels they choose. Their passports were collected at the quarantine hotels and will be released upon completion of 14 days in quarantine, according to most of the returnees.
Travel Beats, an overseas Indian community portal, is a subsidiary of Indian Eagle, a leading travel booking partner of Indians in USA. This story is part of our continued effort to report on the latest developments of air travel to and from India amid the COVID19 pandemic. Subscribe to Travel Beats’ free newsletter and like our Facebook page for latest travel updates, OCI news and NRI community stories.