Today, we are living in an unimaginable situation. The whole world has come to a standstill. People are stranded in different countries and cities, away from their loved ones. Many have lost their jobs and dying to come back home. For people stranded outside India it is almost impossible to get a flight back, as only repatriation flights are running. Also, for people stranded in different cities within the country, even though flights are running there is a fear to travel.
Palak, our guest writer, spent the last year pursuing her postgraduate studies in New York City. You can check out some of her work at https://www.palakkapadia.com/. Having recently flown back to Mumbai in the midst of the pandemic, on a special request and in a hope that this will help many others, she has noted down her entire experience. If you’re planning to fly to India soon or know someone who is (or you’re just bored in quarantine), here’s the whole play-by-play.
One month before the flight:
I was graduating and my visa was set to expire on June 25th. This had been a major source of anxiety to me for the last few weeks because India was (and continues to be) under complete lockdown, operating only repatriation flights. I didn’t want to risk overstaying my visa.
Like several other Indian students, I came very close to being stranded in the USA with an expired visa. I found out about the Vande Bharat mission repatriation flights and signed up on the Indian embassy’s website to be considered for the same.
At the time, they were evaluating all applications on a case-by-case basis and contacting those eligible to travel personally to book the flight. This would mean that I wouldn’t know until a couple of days before or even the actual date of the flight that I had been chosen. As you can probably imagine, things seemed rather uncertain.
Two weeks before the flight:
On June 8th, Air India announced on Twitter that they were going to open bookings for Vande Bharat flights from their website. The plus side, this meant no more uncertain waiting for the embassy to get in touch. On the downside, I’d be competing with the rest of America in a fastest-fingers-first contest to get a seat on one of only 5 flights to Mumbai.
At 10:30am on the dot, I had 4 friends, my parents and myself trying to log on and make the booking. I’d assigned everyone a specific date from among the 5 available so that we’d have backups. After a good 45 minutes of cursing our way through the archaic Air India website, my roommate finally managed to make it to the payment gateway on the Air India iPhone app. I thus got my tickets from Newark (EWR) to Mumbai (BOM) for June 22nd, 2020. My one way ticket was priced at $1361.40. VERY expensive but honestly, I was just grateful to be going home.
I got two emails from Air India – an e-ticket and an itinerary receipt. The tickets have all the instructions you need to pack and prepare for the flight. I was also asked to fill and sign an Undertaking stating my date of travel, flight no., purpose of travel, etc. However, I see now that it has changed slightly and the new document can be accessed here: https://repat.videshapps.gov.in/user_registrationPg
Two days before the flight:
The baggage allowance was as follow: 2 x 23kg of check-in luggage and 1 x 8kg of carry-on luggage. The website didn’t mention specifically if an extra personal item/laptop bag was allowed, I decided to bring one.
I also read online that having a negative COVID test could help waive off the institutional quarantine so I got myself tested, just in case. However, I was asked to quarantine in a hotel regardless (more on that later).
Web check-in is mandatory for all passengers. The web check-in opened 48 hours before departure and I was able to pick a window seat as I’d have liked to. In order to prepare for the flight, I printed my boarding pass, the 2 emails (e-ticket and itinerary receipt) and the undertaking. The email also mentioned that they may inspect the card used for booking the ticket at the airport. Since my tickets were booked from my roommate’s card, I was asked to carry a photocopy of the front and back of her card with CVV covered, self-attested by her authorizing the use of her card for the purchase of my ticket. I brought this with me but it was never inspected.
On the day of the flight:
I arrived at the Newark airport at 8am (4 hours before the flight) to find a long queue already. The queue snaked through the waiting area and extended outside the terminal. There was barely any social distancing. While waiting in line, we were asked to fill and sign another undertaking stating that we don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19, are traveling at personal risk and consent to institutional quarantine in India at our own cost. Those who hadn’t printed the original undertaking were given a copy to fill at the airport.
My temperature was also taken in this queue and was written on the undertaking. When asked, the medical staff told me that the cutoff to fly was 98.6°F. (For context, the average human temperature is 98.3°F, mine was 98.4°F.)
Next up, the embassy staff inspected our passports and collected the undertakings. Onward to the check-in counter.
The check-in counter was the point at which the normalcy of the airport returned. My bags were weighed. They’re quite strict about the weight-limit. One of my suitcases was slightly overweight (26kgs) and I was asked to reduce 3kgs. I panicked a little bit because I was holding up the line and decided to toss out the first heavy thing I could find – my bag of toiletries. (In retrospect, that was a bad idea because it was liquids that I couldn’t move to my cabin luggage.) On remeasuring, it weighed 24.3 kgs and was accepted. So I got out of that mostly unscathed, just a few lotions/face washes short.
My cabin bag was never weighed and personal item wasn’t questioned. But I may just have been lucky in that regard.
This whole process took well over an hour. Newark airport doesn’t have free trolleys but I highly recommend paying for one. I didn’t and I was exhausted by the time my bags were dropped. If the travellers are senior citizens or need wheelchair assistance, family members are allowed to accompany them till the baggage drop to help with the luggage.
After this, the process was as usual – border patrol inspected my passport, visa and tickets. There was the usual security check and I proceeded to my boarding gate.
In a major moment of panic, I realised my passport hadn’t been stamped. But a quick Google search revealed that passports are no longer stamped on exit from the USA, an electronic record of entries and exits is maintained on your form i-94 (https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94/#/home). It takes a couple of days to update, mine has been updated now just over a day later. Phew!
At the boarding gate, thermal testing was done once more and passengers in middle seats were given additional PPE in the form of a full fibre robe. It was finally time to board the plane.
In the flight:
Air India crew welcomed us on board in full PPE. Every seat had a kit containing a mask, face shield and 6 sachets of sanitizer. Meals were kept packaged on all seats as well.
Every time I board a flight and see the middle seat next to me is empty, I do a little prayer that it stays that way. For this one in particular, when they announced boarding was completed and the middle seat was still empty, I was overjoyed.It allowed me quite a bit of social distancing in an otherwise full flight.
I noticed some more empty seats on the flight. In fact the entire row behind mine was empty. I wonder now if they’re doing anything to accommodate emergency cases on these but at that moment, I shamelessly reclined my seat as far back as it would go and settled in for the 15 hours.
Other than mild turbulence, the flight was uneventful. What we think of as flying essentials (think in-flight entertainment, constant snacking, open bars, etc.) was a distant dream.
Contact with the crew is minimum.
Food and water are on your seat already. I found it to be sufficient but I had brought some of my own just to be safe (and also because I wanted my last slice of Artichoke pizza before I said adieu to NYC). The food itself was fine. I had requested a Jain meal, I have no idea if it was honoured or they had a standard meal that could work for everyone. Regardless, this is what it looked like:
Meal 1: A basil-tomato-mozerella sandwich, cheddar cheese and crackers, buttery spread (not butter lol), cookies and cream mousse and no-fat blueberry yoghurt.
Meal 2: Bread roll, buttery spread, blueberry muffin, protein bar, oatmeal and raisin cookies and no-fat blueberry yoghurt.
Snack: Orange juice, Haldiram Aloo Bhujia, fried vegetable straws, butter cookies and Cadbury Dairymilk.
Personally, I thought the food was great. Well, as great as airplane food can get! But if you’re hoping for Air India’s usual piping hot paneer and dal makhani fare, you’re in for disappointment. (For all their flaws, Air India has some of the best airplane food, fight me!)
If you’re a picky eater or for older people who don’t vibe with continental meals, I’d suggest carrying your own food. I would also recommend bringing an empty bottle of water so you can fill it after the security check.
There is no in-flight entertainment to avoid contamination. So download a lot of bingeable Netflix. The seats have a USB charging port for your phone/tablet. No newspapers/magazines are provided, bring your own.
There are no pillows/blankets provided and the flight gets chilly, so bring a light jacket and blanket.
I stayed the hell away from the bathrooms because I had zero desire of contacting anyone’s bodily fluids, pandemic or no pandemic. So I cannot comment on how clean/unclean they were.
I spent the journey drifting in and out of sleep and watching Netflix’s Elite (Spanish Gossip Girl, perfect for mindless bingeing). I also realised how easy quarantine has made sitting in one place for 15 hours straight.
Lastly, we were given a self-declaration to be filled in duplicate with all our details and confirming we don’t have any COVID symptoms.
Like clockwork, we landed in Mumbai 15 hours later. Deboarding the plane took longer than usual as they were letting people out in batches.
There are several pitstops at the Mumbai airport. Thermal testing is done once again and you submit the self-declaration filled on the plane to the health ministry officials.
At this point, you must download the Aarogya Setu App and that is checked by the officials to monitor how much of a risk you pose. Having an active Indian SIM card is essential because you need an OTP to sign up.
Even to access the WiFi at the Mumbai airport, you need an OTP.
Those who didn’t have a sim card could purchase one from the Airtel kiosks at the airport. I had mine but it hadn’t been recharged in a year so it wasn’t functional. I had to ask one of my co-passengers for help to connect to the WiFi and recharged my SIM using Google Pay. Don’t make my mistake – recharge your SIM a day in advance 🙂
We then moved on to immigration and baggage claim which was business as usual.
After that we were given a list of hotels we could pick from to quarantine in. The list has the phone numbers of the hotel and you can call to check availability and book. Again, an Indian SIM is a must for this.
I asked if I could quarantine at home as I got a COVID test in the States and the reports were negative. However, I was refused and told home quarantine is only for specific cases such as pregnant women or people coming back for a death in the family.
I chose to quarantine at the Grand Hyatt, Mumbai. The tariff is INR 4000 per day inclusive of all taxes and 3 meals.
I was then directed outside the airport where a fleet of BEST buses waited to drive us to our respective hotels. We had to pay INR 100 for the bus fare. They accept cash and Google Pay. Having some Indian currency on hand helps simplify the process a lot. I was lucky I had enough on me to cover my fare and even help a couple others.
After a long and humid bus ride with several pit stops to drop people off, I arrived at Grand Hyatt in Santacruz. The whole payment (INR 28,000) has to be made upfront. Since, I didn’t have enough cash or an Indian card on me, my parents were allowed to come to the lobby and pay for my stay.
Meeting them after a full year, albeit from 6 feet away with only air hugs and flying kisses, was the highlight of my very long day.
I checked in to the hotel and that’s where I am now. Writing to you from a fancy room that I can’t leave for the next week. There’s a set food menu and my meals are brought to me.
Arriving at the hotel and taking a long bath, I felt a ball of anxiety unravel from the pit of my stomach. I realised then how stressful the whole ordeal of traveling during a pandemic had been. Even though my experience was pretty positive, I had been harrowed internally by the idea of being in such close proximity with 300 other people for 15 hours. I realised the magnitude of the fear and stress only as I finally felt it dissipate.
It made me extra thankful for embassy officials, Air India’s crew and BMC officials who put their lives on the line every single day just to bring us home. This may sound preachy but it really is something I need to acknowledge.
Please don’t be the person who is a brat on a repatriation flight. People are taking major personal risks just to do their job. Don’t make it harder than it is.
Can’t sleep on a plane without a glass of wine? Stay awake just this once. The power socket on your seat doesn’t work? Put away your phone. Read a book. Look out of the window.
There is a time and place for criticising the government. And there is a time and place for being cooperative.
Yes, this isn’t ideal. None of this is even normal. But at the end of it, you get to come home. And that, to me, is reason enough to be grateful.
If you have any more questions you can ask them in the comment section below.