2020 has been a year of unprecedented travel and health disruption across the world due to the Coronavirus pandemic. More than 200 countries have been affected and the subsequent quarantine restrictions and health costs have been severe.
As on date (11July) there have been 12646767 Coronavirus cases with 563255 deaths and the spread is not looking to abate.
March 2020 saw most countries stopping international and domestic flights leaving many people stranded with no way to return home.
I was visiting Canada and had no way to travel back to India.
I started to keep a close watch on the news and checking status on travel updates at Consulate of India in Vancouver (https://cgivancouver.gov.in ).
In April the Government of India announced evacuation flights from across the world to bring back stranded citizens. I registered for evacuation on the Indian Consulate website.
Vancouver to India flights were announced in Phase 2. The flights were on 19th June (Vancouver -Delhi) and 22 June (Vancouver- Mumbai). As I had to travel further to Srinagar, the Vancouver-Delhi flight was my first choice. The flights were to be booked directly on Air India web portal and FAQ’s were shared at the Indian Consulate Vancouver website.
I received an email from the CGI Vancouver with a Unique case numberand documents to be filled for travel purposes, details of which are mentioned below.
Read and keep ready the following documents for submission at airport on check-in counter for above flights
i) Undertaking cum Indemnity Bond Revised June-2020
ii) Additional undertaking for flights to Delhi
iii) Air India Indemnity — Quarantine Cost & Deportation Charges
iv) Air India Mandatory Requirements for Airport Check-In for Evacuation Flights
v) Self-Reporting-Form to be handed-over on arrival in India
3. Your registration number (unique case file number) is: ABCD123456xxx
Flight booking was to open at sharp 7.30 am on 8 June 2020. Needless to say I checked the Air India website and was online before time.
The booking on the website was very very slow and I had to make 4 attempts for 2–3 hours and still could not complete the booking , even after reaching the payments step. The flight was completely booked within 3 hours and I still did not have a ticket.
The only option left was to buy the Vancouver-Mumbai flight for 22 June.
I tried on that and finally got the ticket for the Air India flight Vancouver to Mumbai on 22 June.
The Cost 2440 CAN $ which would be around 1.36 lakh India rupees. Pretty steep for a one way ticket.
Is this Cost justified ?
let’s do the maths
In the Air India evacuation plane there are 9 seats to a row. 3 x 3x 3
The middle seats are all empty for social distancing purposes, so that means only 6 people sitting in a row.
Now consider that Air India flight had to travel empty from India to Vancouver, that is all 9 seats empty . So for 18 seats to and fro , the total payment received by Air India is for 6 seats only , that is 6 x 136000 = Rs 816000
Which further comes to : Rs 816000/ 18 seats = 45333 Rs per seat for return trip if Air India had charged in normal times with 100 % occupancy.
The cost is high for a single fare but covers expenses of Air India adequately ensuring that the evacuation exercise is not a loss making one.
The flight to Mumbai
Interestingly I could not do the web check in as Vancouver airport did not feature in the drop-down list of “from and to “. I believe Air India does not have regular flights to Vancouver and hence the mystery of the missing airport. I clarified from Air India helpline (Helpline in India, the North America helpline number does not work “does not exist”) and was informed that check in will be done at the Vancouver Airport.
Interestingly the flights from Toronto to Delhi are on an almost daily basis.
The full refund cancellation was available till 24 hrs. of booking the flight.
On 22nd June, the flight was scheduled to take off at 11 AM Vancouver time.
The luggage allowance was 2 bags each of 23 kgs. and Carry on of 8 kgs. And it was better to be within the weight limit as I saw some people made to take out extra weight from their luggage at the Airport Check-in.
I arrived at 7.30 AM at the airport, with mask and gloves on and a handy bottle of sanitizer in my Carry-On bag.
I was directed to a health check line by the Air India Airport Staff. Temperature of each passenger was taken and the undertaking forms were checked, one copy given back and registration number (Unique file number) taken.
Temperature of each passenger was noted on a small round sticker and applied on the passport cover. Now don’t lose this.
The consulate staff was also present and all passengers were offered water during the wait of the temperature check and undertaking collection. This took about 90 minutes.
At around 9 am, I finally moved in to the check-in counter line which took another 60–90 minutes and finally to immigration.
The boarding of the flight was delayed and we boarded at around 11.30 AM.
The Air India crew were in full safety gear and directed each passenger to their seats.
All middle seats were empty and prepacked food, sanitizer pouches, masks and plastic face shield were kept for each passenger.
The food was an assortment of chips, Nuts, dry fruits, 4–5 types of juices, sandwiches, croissants and several other food items that was to last us till Mumbai.
The middle seat being empty, it was easy to manage all the goodies.
The food was more than enough to last the flight and I couldn’t eat all of it.
We finally took off at 12.15 PM, a delay of around 1.15 hrs. The flight took around 14.45 Hrs. to reach our destination Mumbai and we reached on time at 3.30 PM on 23 June 2020.
This was by far one of the most comfortable International flights I had flown In and I didn’t have any Jet lag at all.
De boarding took another 20 minutes, and we had to download Aarogya SETU app as soon as we de boarded. This was checked at the security gate as was my temperature.
My status in Aarogya Setu App was Green and “At Low Risk”.
After immigration, I collected my baggage and was directed to helpdesks set up where I was given a list of Hotels to choose from for my 7-day mandatory quarantine.
I chose Hyatt Regency which is very close to the Airport. The daily charges were 4000 Rs inclusive of Break Fast, Lunch, Dinner and taxes.
Several passengers were hoarded on to the waiting buses to take them to their chosen Hotels. The ticket was Rs 100 per passenger. All baggage to be loaded on the bus by the passengers. You have a choice of calling a Cab from your chosen hotel, but as mine was the closest I was the first to be dropped off.
Woh Saat Din. 7 Days of Quarantine.
I was dropped off by the bus at Hyatt at around 7 pm. The driver of the bus ensured me and another passenger entered the Hotel. The baggage was kept outside the main entrance for sanitization, my temperature and Aarogya Setu app status checked, I was given a new mask and proceeded to the Hotel Check In.
Hyatt Regency had a skeleton staff and strict rules for the quarantine.
No going out of the room.
No food from home or outside.
In case a guest gets a parcel from outside the Hotel, the parcel is quarantined for one day and handed over the next day.
All quarantine guests were on the same 4th floor. After check In I had to take my luggage to my room. No porter services.
The room was very comfortable. About 45 half liter mineral water bottles were already placed in the room. Besides the meals I could order eatables of my choice at a 30% discount. The meals were delicious, sufficient and served in Plastic lunch containers, placed outside the room on the table. I never did order any additional eatables.
On the fourth day, our Covid test was done on the same floor of the Hotel. Swab from throat was taken which was not uncomfortable at all.
I booked a Go Air ticket from Mumbai to Srinagar for the 30th of June. On 29th June, I received a message from Go Air that my flight to Srinagar was Cancelled. I emailed them for a refund but have still not heard from them till date.
I was aware that a lot of flights from Mumbai to Srinagar were getting cancelled for whatever reasons. Another great mystery
I booked another flight from Mumbai to Srinagar on 30th with Spice Jet SG8704.
Due to my International travel, I was carrying more baggage than allowed on domestic flights, so I managed to send some of It thru Air Cargo beforehand to Srinagar.
The service of Spice Jet air Cargo was excellent and my baggage arrived before me.
The flight SG 8704 was a connecting flight with stopover in Delhi but reaching Srinagar on the same day. The flight was to leave Mumbai on 30th Morning at around 7.30 AM
On 29th I received a message from Spice Jet that now the flight would leave at 5.30 pm on the 30th and the second leg of the flight, that is from Delhi to Srinagar would be on the 1st of July. So that means, I would have to spend overnight In Delhi with a higher chance of getting Covid. I wonder if the airlines realize that they are putting the passenger at risk of getting Covid by making these arbitrary changes.
On 30th June at around 2 pm, I checked out of Hyatt Regency. I was given my Covid Negative report (Hurray), 14 days home quarantine stamped on my hand and a Travel Pass.
Overall a very comfortable stay and excellent service by Hyatt Regency Mumbai.
Flying High to Sitting Ducks
I had to do a web check-in and received my boarding pass on my email. I was Instructed to paste my details on my baggage.
The baggage allowed was 20 Kgs Check-in and 10 KGs carry On. I had an additional Laptop bag with me.
I reached the airport at around 2.30 pm and went to the Spice Jet desk. The airport was almost empty. My baggage was duly checked In and I proceeded to the allocated gate with my Carry-On bag and Laptop Bag. More than half the shops in the Airport were open but there were very less customers. Everybody was in masks and social distancing was being strictly practiced.
My temperature was checked at several places and status on Aarogya Setu app was also checked. (Which at that point was Green and “You are Safe”)
We boarded the flight in time. The inflight crew was in overall protective gear and we were informed that no snacks/food would be served though water bottles on request were available.
Passengers in the middle seats were given protective overalls to wear and rest of the passengers were given the standard Kit of Sanitizer pouches, masks and plastic protective shield. I couldn’t help but notice that the kit given by Air India was far better in quality. The mask given by spice jet could hardly be put on and pulled my ears, if I would have sneezed, it would have taken my ears off (probably that was its purpose, don’t sneeze or your ears off!!)
We landed In Delhi on time and had to wait for 15–20 minutes for the on-ground staff to man the gates. As soon as the Inflight crew announced that we could de board, social distancing went out of the closed windows and it was a rush to the exit for the passengers. The crew repeatedly requested for passengers to de board as per their sitting order, but to no avail.
I collected my baggage from the belt and went outside the Airport. There was no temperature check, no quarantine, I was free to go anywhere. The scene almost looked like the pre Covid times with lines outside the Subway joint.
My next day flight was at around 8.30 am, so I called an Ola, checked in at a nearby hotel.
Next day morning, I reached the airport at around 6 AM. I had already done the web check In and had the boarding card. I went to the Spice Jet desk where I was duly informed that the laptop bag was not allowed and I would have to add it in my luggage or check-in bag.
The domestic limit of 20 kgs. check and 10 kgs. carry on is apparently inclusive of Laptops.
So, I added my laptop bag to my check bag, paid Rs 1200 for the additional 3 kgs. and walked towards the boarding gate.
I saw two passengers not being allowed on the flight as they had not done web check in which is now mandatory. So, Kids do your web check in on time.
Finally boarded the flight to Srinagar via Delhi. Same repeat, we were given the Kits with the ear pulling masks, the middle-seated passenger was given a protective gown to wear.
The flight was via Jammu and it was full and on time. All passengers had to de board in Jammu for the plane to be sanitized.
We reached Srinagar at around 12.15, a delay of about 45 minutes as there was some clearance delay and we had to hover over the airport for about 30 minutes.
The Final Destination
On de boarding the plane at Srinagar, the passengers were directed to 8–10 helpdesks at the entrance of the Airport (from the runway), passengers’ details were taken. I collected my baggage and then was directed to another line of helpdesks where again details were taken, name, arrived from, etc. etc. Then over to the Covid test again, no worries, I had done it earlier.
But this time it was a nose swab taken and it was uncomfortable. But better safe than sorry.
I was Informed that I would have to do another day In Quarantine at a Hotel until my Covid report came. Well as if I had a choice.
We were taken to TRC in a bus where we had to choose a Hotel. The hotels were pretty reasonable and I had to shell out 1200 Rs for the one day stay plus 500 Rs for the further Cab drive from TRC to the Hotel in Shalimar.
Next day I was Informed at 3 pm that my Covid report was ready and I would get the report at 5 pm. At 5 pm an Officer of the health services came to the Hotel and handed over the Covid Negative report with further instruction of Home Quarantine till 15th of July.
Travel has changed, when earlier I could reach home from an International destination in 2 days max, it took me 9 days to reach home plus a further 14 days in Home Quarantine. Lots of things to be taken care of while travelling. The plus point is the Airports are not crowded as they used to be. The minus points are the increased cost, erratic services, delayed , cancelled flights and chances of getting infected with Covid 19.
So, take a decision to travel only if you have to and stay safe.