Vande Bharat Mission: Grateful to be back home, say students despite costly tickets; lack of in-flight social distancing spooks passengers
Firstpost spoke to some passengers on these special flights under the Vande Bharat Mission about their journey back home and their experience being airlifted. While most of the passengers were grateful for the opportunity to return home, they felt 'blindsided' by the lack of communication by officials, not only to the run-up to the flight and also right through their journey home.
Air India on 7 May began its first phase of one of the largest repatriation operations conducted by the government with as many as 64 flights flying to 12 international destinations to airlift about 15,000 stranded Indians who are stuck overseas due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
The flights are operating from 12 countries in the first phase between 7 to 13 May, while in phase two, the government is set to conduct evacuations from 31 countries with 149 flights between 16 to 22 May.
According to the government's elaborate evacuation, named Vande Bharat Mission, 40 of these special flights is operated by Air India while its subsidiary Air India Express is operating 24 flights to repatriate Indians from 12 countries — UAE, UK, US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman, officials told PTI.
Officials had also indicated that priority will be given to compelling cases such as medical, senior citizens, family emergencies, and those who are unemployed.
The first phase of Vande Bharat Mission is currently on in full swing. As of 12 May (Tuesday), as many as 6,037 Indian nationals have been evacuated in 31 inbound flights operated by Air India and Air India Express under Vande Bharat Mission, according to the Ministry of Civil Aviation.
Firstpost spoke to some passengers on these special flights about their journey back home. While most of the passengers were grateful for the opportunity to return home, they felt 'blindsided' by the lack of communication by officials, not only to the run-up to the flight and also right through their journey home.
Lack of prior notice, price-hike of tickets cause stress
Samruddhi Lunkad, a 23-year old a post-graduate student at the University of Sussex told Firstpost, "On 8 May, I got a call in the evening saying I was shortlisted for the flight, which was the next morning. I live in Brighton, and London is about two hours away."
In a desperate attempt to get assured tickets, she packed up her bags and left for Heathrow Airport, in the hope that she would be able to purchase a ticket at the airport directly, which paid off. But at a big cost.
"The Air India officials at the airport told me they had only one ticket left, which was a business class ticket at the price of 1,438 pounds (Rs 1,32,000)," she said. Lunkad bought it, "It was hard to collect the money since I am a student, but I had a few relatives wire me cash on the spot and I took the ticket."
Another passenger on the same flight, 23-year-old Ayushi Shah, a masters student at Newcastle University, also noted the hike in prices. Unlike Samruddhi, she travelled in economy class, which normally costs about Rs 25,000 for a one-way trip, but now costed her over Rs 50,000.
Ayushi too struggled to get information about her tickets, written or verbal. "I just got a call the morning before the flight telling me I had been shortlisted and if I wanted to go back home, I had to make it in time for the plan the next morning," she told Firstpost.
Living four hours away from London in Newcastle, she relied on a student help organisation called Education Beyond Borders, and Community Response Kitchen provided her with free stay and a drop to the airport. Shah took to Twitter to live-tweet about her journey home.
— Ayushi Shah (@shahayushi45) May 9, 2020
No social distancing onboard, long waiting hours
Both the students noted the lack of social distancing maintained throughout the flight. Ayushi said, "We were told at the London Airport that there would not be any social distancing on the plane. Over 300 passengers on a plane with no social distancing maintained? The airport officials told us that this was an approved government mandate to facilitate maximum passengers on the plane."
As per government protocol, it was mandatory for the passengers to download the contact-tracing government application Aarogya Setu, before boarding the flight.
During the entire duration of the flight, "no social distancing was maintained what so ever", the students noted. Samuruddhi said, "The entire flight was booked, no seat was for free."
Meenketan Jha, a 22-year-old student at Columbia University told Firstpost, "Social distancing practices were thrown out the window here. On the flight, passengers were seated next to each other rather than there being a space between two individuals. The in-flight entertainment was not working and in a 15-hour flight, it can form an absolute despair sort of situation."
He also noted that the entire journey was longer than usual, due to the various protocols that needed to be done. "We landed at 1 am but we didn’t get off the flight till 2.15 am and by the time we got out of the airport it was already 5.15 am," he said.
Either way, all passengers have spent a lot of money out of their pockets to get home.
Choice of hotels based on budget given to self-quarantine
Upon landing in Mumbai, the body temperatures of the passengers were taken again and their bags were sanitised. After getting through immigration, all passengers are shifted to buses to take them to their selected government-approved quarantine centres. The passengers are given a choice based on their budget from 3-star to 5-star hotels to pick from, where they have to self-isolate for 14 days.
The prices of these hotels range from Rs 2,000 to 5,000 per day, which gets multiplied into 14 days.
Garima Kalra, a student who was airlifted from the Philippines noted that the free of cost facilities from the government was not adequate. "The accommodation provided by the Centre had no proper water, food, or proper hygiene." She chose to pick a hotel instead to self-isolate.
Garima said, "First we had to pay an advance of Rs 10,000 and only then did the hotel let us enter. This system was out of reach for us. We were dead tired and nobody took care of that. Personally, I was so tired so when I came to the hotel finally, I felt as if I could faint any time but I had to wait in line maintaining social distance and finish all the formalities."
While students in Mumbai got to choose a hotel in Mumbai, Samruddhi was shifted to a hotel not of her choice. "After getting out of the airport, Pune passengers were driven to the city on a bus. Throughout the drive, ever since we landed, we were not given water or food. With all the shops closed, we could not even buy any. All of us were tired and starved," she said.
When she tried to enquire about why the bus could not drop her off at her selected hotel, the officials did not answer. "Through the entire journey, getting even one answer out of them was so hard. There was just nobody I could approach with my questions. The whole time we were kept in the dark, Finally, we reached Pune, only to be isolated on the outskirts of the city limits," Samruddhi added.
Samruddhi was coerced into paying for the hotel even though she had booked another hotel prior, as the officials told her "she had no other option".
Zubin George, another student at the University of Sussex who took the flight from London to Bengaluru noted that the entire process was "better than anticipated". He is currently self-isolating in a 5-star property in Bengaluru, which provides for three meals and highlighted that the price of the hotel room was actually marked down. "You wouldn't normally get a single-occupancy room with all meals provided for in such a price," he told Firstpost.
Minimum passenger-crew interaction for safety of cabin crew, says Air India
An Air India cabin crew member, Swati (*name changed to protect identity) spoke to Firstpost about the various precautions taken by the carrier for these special flights. She said before the passengers were allowed to board, their temperatures are taken.
"All the seats on the flight have a small safety box, which consists of — a glove, a mask, a small sanitizer, and a visor," she said. Two food packets with cupcakes, sandwiches, juice boxes, and a one-liter water bottle were placed along with the safety kit on each passenger's seat.
But Zubin, who took the flight from London to Bengaluru, noted that the last few rows of the airplane were not given the safety kits. "Maybe, they ran out of supplies, but my seat did not have these kits. Thankfully everyone was carrying their own masks and gloves so it wasn't too much of a hassle," he said.
Swati also said that crew members are not allowed to serve or talk to any of the passengers, unless necessary. "We don't serve anything as everything is placed on their seats, to minimise interaction with cabin crew and the passengers. All crew members are to wear hazmat suits, masks, gloves, shoe covers, and visor, so were are given all safety equipment," she said.
All crew members, including pilots, before taking part in such missions, are made to take COVID-19 tests, five to six days before the slated flight. "We are monitored even before the flight takes off and are quarantined for 14 days on landing, in government-stipulated centres," she said.
In all, 'grateful' to be back home
All the passengers agreed that even though there were some hiccups in communication from the Centre or the respective embassies, they were 'extremely grateful' for being back home. "The Air India staff did the best of what they could and we are thankful for the Indian Embassy and the government to take on such a massive evacuation during such trying times."
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