For the first time since the ongoing nationwide lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19, Indians wanting to travel abroad for emergency reasons like the medical issues or death of a relative have been allowed to fly abroad.
The Narendra Modi government has allowed Air India to carry Indian passengers to various countries including the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Malaysia when aircraft of the national carrier flies to these countries for the evacuation of Indians stranded in these countries.
“Our planes will not fly empty when they go to various countries for the evacuation. We have been asked to be prepared to carry passengers on the onward journey too,” a top source at Air India said.
Officials of the Civil Aviation Ministry confirmed the development and said that the Home Ministry has issued instructions to this effect.
Seeking to utilise the evacuation flights on their onward journey, the Union government is also working out an elaborate plan to send the foreign nationals stuck in India to their countries since commercial flights are not available.
Thousands of foreigners are waiting in gateway cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad to return home when flights become available. When the coronavirus scare brought all air transport to a grinding halt a month ago, around 30 thousands foreign nationals were stuck in India as flights got cancelled, but a bulk of these stranded passengers have since flown back on evacuation flights operated by various countries including the US, Australia, Malaysia, and South Korea.
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However, a sizable number could not make it due to various reasons including the exorbitant cost for traveling on these evacuation flights.
Kill two birds with one stone
Since 64 special evacuation flights are to be operated by Air India in the first phase to bring back stranded Indians, the government has worked out a detailed plan to utilise this opportunity since sending these planes empty will be a waste of resources, said an official of the Civil Aviation Ministry.
Hence, the decision to accommodate Indian nationals seeking to travel for bona fide reasons and allowing foreign nationals to return home.
All such travel will be subject to the regulations imposed by the countries to which these passengers will be flown, he added. That includes all precautions to ensure that passengers infected with coronavirus do not travel on these flights and other requirements like mandatory quarantine being implemented strictly.
Foreigners will pay for their return
While foreigners, as well as Indian citizens seek to travel abroad, they will pay for their transportation but these flights will not be operated like commercial flights. The Civil Aviation Ministry will decide who can fly on these flights and detailed guidelines have been issued for this purpose, the Civil Aviation Ministry official said.
The tariff for these flights will be similar to the charges levied for Indians returning on the evacuation flights – ₹15,000 to ₹25,000 for flying from various destinations in the Gulf to India; ₹1 lakh for return from the US, ₹30,000 for travel from the Philippines to India; and ₹50,000 for return from the UK.
The Civil Aviation Ministry will provide priority to foreigners whose visa has expired and Indians traveling for unavoidable reasons.
Indians holding a long term visa to the country of travel, Green Card, permanent residency permits will be eligible to travel if the destination country has no objection, the official added.
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Embassies of the destination countries in India and Indian embassies in the countries concerned are co-ordinating all facilitation measures.
Cargo payload also under consideration
Apart from carrying passengers on their onward journey, Air India’s evacuation flights will also uplift cargo after all required clearances are available. Though cargo flights were not banned when commercial air transport was grounded, sizeable quantities of cargo shipments are still in the pipeline for export to various countries. Therefore, the national carrier has been asked to keep options open for carrying cargo on the evacuation flights.
Due to the 64 evacuation flights that are being mounted this week onwards to carry 15,000 Indians back, Air India will have better utilisation of its aircraft and crew during May as compared to April.
The national carrier has been operating several evacuation flights to bring back Indians from various countries including China.
COVID-19 clearance for crew
For the evacuation flights, Air India is getting coronavirus tests done for its pilots and cabin crew so that only COVID-19 negative persons with proper medical certification operate these flights. All other procedures laid down by the destination countries including temperature checks at the boarding point, social distancing inside the aircraft, and mandatory quarantine on arrival will also be followed, an Air India official said.
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Disinfection procedures will be followed at both countries to make sure the aircraft used for the evacuation flights are not subject to any infection, he added.
Wearing of masks, use of gloves and hand sanitizers will be mandatory for those on board the evacuation flights.
In a way, it will be a useful drill for Air India for the operation of commercial flights once the COVID-19 ban is lifted to allow international flight traffic.
Evacuation may continue for weeks
The evacuation process is likely to go on for several weeks since the operation of 64 flights to bring 15,000 Indians back home is only the first phase of the massive efforts.
“Due to the strict conditions imposed by various countries, these flights will not have quick turnaround like commercial flights. It will take a lot more time to meet all standard operating procedures,” a senior Air India official said.
Requests have been sent to these countries for immigration and customs clearances so that the evacuation flights are not delayed. The Home Ministry, on its part, has specified half-a-dozen points in its checklist for allowing travel of passengers on the onward leg of evacuation flights and these will be strictly implemented by the Civil Aviation Ministry and Air India, top government sources said.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri is supervising the arrangements and care is being taken to ensure that the evacuation plan is executed without any hitches. It is felt that evacuation of 15,000 Indians will be only the first phase as more Indians stranded in various countries are registering for return to India.
Airports gearing up
The airports at key gateway cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Kochi are being prepared for the evacuation plan with detailed arrangements. This includes fulfilling all the requirements laid down by the destination countries and, more importantly, the arrangements to receive 15,000 Indians returning home in the next couple of weeks.
Fumigation has been done at most of these airports and arrangements are being made to ensure the presence of medical staff for handling passengers.
Detailed medical checks followed by quarantine for two weeks are mandatory and plans are afoot to take the returning Indians directly from the airports to quarantine centres.
The returning Indians will bear the cost of quarantine and arrangements are being made according to health ministry guidelines. In the case of quarantine facilities, the concerned state governments are also co-ordinating to provide logistics and security arrangements.