Evacuation Flights USA - India During COVID-19 | Experiences and How to get started?

7.23.2020 United States

"Last month on the 11th of June, I took Air India’s Evacuation Flight / Vande Bharat Flight / Repatriation Flight from Washington DC(IAD) To Delhi (DEL) on a VBM flight and further onwards to Patna(PAT) on a Non-VBM flight. My journey was due to a very personal loss as my father had passed away on the 9th and I am extremely grateful to the Consulate General of India, Air India, BJANA(Bihar Jharkhand Association of North America), and the Facebook forum SOS Global Indians by Michael Khanna for bringing me home at such short notice during the pandemic of Covid-19. "


Picture of my friend Itishree and her family on VBM Phase 1 (JFK to BLR), Check her experience story at the end.


Facts: Vande Bharat Flights are released in Phases. So here's a list of Phases we have or had: 

https://www.mea.gov.in/vande-bharat-mission-list-of-flights.htm

We are currently running on Phase IV.



I hence would like to help many people as possible through this blog post where not only will I share my own experience but also another experience of my friend and also would love to hear your comments and doubts should you have any.  


I would also like to mention here that the rules have been constantly changing during these times depending on the situation, the lockdown, the number of COVID cases, etc. I could have penned it all earlier, but I was in a state of shock, and my family and other priorities took preference over blogging.

First of all, please do not take these flights unless there is an emergency. Seats are very limited, and as responsible humans, we must give preference to people who have died in the family, medical emergency, pregnancy, visa expiry issues, etc. A few cases have been such that people have booked flights just for the sake of traveling and then did not travel, hence losing the seats to someone more worthy of it. We are in the middle of a pandemic and travel without reason can wait. A few people have been frowning on why isn’t Government taking everyone back, which in the case of limited seats and flights comes to a matter of preferences and priorities. The Government is doing the best they can. Yes, there is a scope of improvement still, that we are talking about...

Here’s a brief video of me at IAD Airport thanking the Indian Embassy for all their support: 




Despite the costs, the journey is worth it in case of an emergency, and here’s how you can avail it. 

REGISTRATION FORM, BOOKING, AND FORUMS | How to get started?  
  1. First Fill the Registration Form on the Indian Embassy Website: https://www.indianembassyusa.gov.in/reg_indian_nationals. Fill out the relevant reason by selecting from the dropbox at the registration form. Once you have registered, you will get this confirmation on your email from Washington.gov.in. I got it in my spam folder. Keep it as a printout or on your phone for reference purposes at the Airport. Also, keep in mind once you fill the registration form once and submit it, you will not be able to resubmit it under the same passport number in case if you want to change the reason. For example, in my dad's case, I had entered Medical Emergency when my dad was in ICU, but I wasn't allowed to change it again from the website when he died. So I had to contact the numbers provided on the website for a change of reason. 
  2. Since June 8th, the Embassy had let go of the previous lottery system and now you can book your tickets directly on Air India. List of the current VBM flights are here https://www.mea.gov.in/phase-4.htm
  3. However, my experience with Air India on both their website and their app hasn’t been so great. If your case is not an emergency case where you can wait for your travel, you may probably find available dates after a few weeks. Some people managed to book flights after weeks, and sometimes even refreshing the page or opening in the incognito or booking through app changes the availability. Most of it was showing sold out for travel within a week on a few sectors that I searched on. It was a tough cookie to reach to Air India, as they weren’t picking up calls, and the mails were not responded and here in NYC, Air India office was closed during my travel due to Curfew and Lockdown. 
  4. There is also an Emergency Number on the Consulate Website. During my time, no one was picking up on the Emergency number and we were suggested to call on another number in a recorded message and once I did get a call from them in a few hours and it was suggested to me that I fill out the registration form and I have to book my flights on my own. I was also told about the mandatory quarantine in Delhi.
  5. However, even then I wasn’t able to book the Air India flights. It was then, I joined the Facebook forum "SOS Global Indians" that had helped me tremendously, thanks to the suggestion of the group by one of my friends Itishree who had traveled via Lottery System in May. She suggested that reading comments in the group or finding answers were very helpful which I found was. This group is a hit!
  6.  I hence, requested the members if they know anyway where I could get flight tickets asap. Among the many comments that I received which gave me hope that people are still able to book their flights on their own, the comment from BJANA stood out where they reached out to me directly. 
  7.  I have had never interacted with BJANA before, and I am extremely thankful for their unconditional help. It was because of them that they reached out to the embassy and informed me that I need to decide within 10 min between two flights: IAD(Washington Dulles International Airport) - DEL(Delhi) scheduled to fly on the next day or JFK (John F. Kennedy New York) - MAA(Chennai) on the day after. I was a little hesitant to go to IAD as we had to rent a car during Corona and drive for 6 hours before landing at the Airport from New Jersey, but we had no choice. I was hesitant on landing at MAA(Chennai) because I had heard that Tamil Nadu required e-pass.
  8. When I told him my decision that I am willing to fly the next day from Washington, I got a mail from Embassy for the undertaking and was also send a mail for Consent for ticket booking on a special flight. Thereafter, the consulate called, and gave me condolences and also answered my query on quarantine which she had said, that it is mandatory but at the discretion of the officer there if he can help you give home quarantine at home state instead. I found her to be extremely compassionate and well-spoken on the phone. 
  9. The story does not end here. Once your payment with Air India is successful, you get a payment successful email. However, I hadn't gotten the ticket till the day of my flight. So things are very uncertain and unorganized in this sector, where I had to call Air India on the day of my travel, and ask them am if I in, or am I out? If I am in, where is my ticket or confirmation of the ticket? My friend's ticket also arrived very last minute.
  10. How much luggage should you carry? Since everything was very last minute for me, I couldn't pack as much as I wanted, and ended up carrying a big check-bag with just 13 kgs of weight. It also helped me though, when taking an onward domestic flight. You may need to confirm weight limits from the airline itself.
ARE REPATRIATION FLIGHTS FREE?

Surprisingly no. After watching tons of Bollywood movies, I had the impression that Evacuation Flight would run free. However, this repatriation flight named Vande Bharat is 3 times the cost of the general fare, and the price for my flight began at $1398 for a one-way flight to Delhi. I have heard that the rates have changed since then but I am not sure. I have also heard that a few other Airlines than Air India may be allowed to fly starting from the end of this month. I can't vouch for this information, but if other flights are allowing you to book and if you are not in an absolute hurry, maybe you can try them as well.

SHOULD YOU GET COVID TESTED BEFORE BOARDING? 


I cannot vouch for this information, but some people told me if I could get my COVID negative test lab report in advance, they might exempt me from institutional quarantine when I land. I quickly reached out to Mayor Ravi Bhalla of Hoboken NJ on this vague information I got from somewhere, and he responded that I could get myself tested at a few centers. When I called these centers, I was informed that the test results take time ranging from 3-5 days. Since I did not have so much time with me then, I chose to not go ahead with it. 

PRE-BOARDING AND BOARDING AT AIRPORT | How was the experience?

  • The first thing that I would suggest to everyone in the Evacuation Flight is Web Checkin(which will be said as required in the Air India mail). That helps you select your seats before boarding. That is helpful in the Covid-19 situation if we want to minimize our risk of infection from the aisle to the aisle even though they have intentionally kept one space between each seat. I felt that the Window seats seemed like the safest bet.  
  • The pre-boarding at the Washington DC Airport went on very smoothly. Before we are allowed to be in the queue for luggage boarding and collecting boarding passes, we are supposed to fill up the health form declaration and go to the medical counter where they check for temperatures. Rest all check-in procedures are normal as is. 
  • In between check-in counter and security, you might meet the embassy folks and they might tell you to share your experience. If you want you can share it with them. Rest all process went as is, with social distancing maintained. The Washington Airport at my time wasn’t crowded, it was mainly empty. However, the gate where Air India was and where you might want to sit, there were many people. 


WHICH MASKS SHOULD YOU USE? 


It is my personal opinion but I would highly suggest wearing the normal surgical/cloth mask over the N95. The reason being, some airports require us to walk for a long while or climb upstairs, or tag along with luggage for a distance. Moreover, you will be inside the plane for 13-14 hours which is a long duration for wearing an N95. In that case, the likelihood of getting nauseous or unwell is more. Also, carry hand sanitizer, it is more essential in the airports than anything.  


THE INFLIGHT EXPERIENCE 


  • Your seats will have 3 packaged kit - a) One containing masks, face shield, hand sanitizer, etc. b)Lunch c) Dinner. 


  • There are no inflight services provided inside the flight. There wouldn't even be television. The food provided also is very basic so if you wish to carry more, maybe you can. I would suggest keeping the masks on you at all times because there are many passengers on the flight. Although for our safety purposes, the middle seats are kept vacant.

  • You will also see air hostess/hostesses wearing PPE kits but they wouldn't be serving you during the flight duration. The toilets in my flight did not have hand sanitizer which was very weird.

LANDING, IMMIGRATION, GROUPING BY CISF, COVID TRIAGE FACILITY 
IN DELHI

  • As soon as you land, you will go through regular immigration keeping social distancing intact. I narrated my incident there but still was stamped "Quarantined at Delhi" on my form. The CISF personnel later told me, that there would be another officer at the end, to who we can request and it would be at his discretion.  

  • After the immigration, you will be divided into groups and each group will have a CISF. The idea is to not get the airport crowded, and hence seats are provided with social distancing within the enclosure from point A to B. They would call your group numbers and make you move from one enclosure to another. There will be a few halts before you reach the baggage and at each enclosure, you will be said to sit for some time before the next group proceeds. Make sure you are in your group allocated. As you reach the baggage counter, make sure to collect a trolley to carry luggage, because even till the exit there are many stops. This part at the airport is very well managed. It takes time but is well maintained.  

  • Thereafter, when you exit, you will all walk towards COVID Triage Facility with CISF in the lead which is the building opposite the airport. Now, here inside everything was very hotchpotch. You are required to download the Arogya Setu app and your temperatures are checked. You can keep your luggage at the side, and either you will be quarantined in Delhi which in most cases was or you can request the officer inside(for death, pregnancy, medical emergency, etc).  

  • The problem here is the staff or the guards in the facility isn't very co-operative, there is no social distancing maintained, and they tell you to choose the hotel for quarantine unless you speak for yourself and say, "No, you want a home quarantine in your state..because...and hence I would want to talk to the officer". There is just one door from where they let the people for hotel quarantine form a line and go and the people who might want to meet the officer and that's where the confusion is, as emergency cases are not given preference here which should be.  
  • However, once the initial chaos gets over, the officer inside was very considerate in my case and other few relevant cases. Even though I did manage to get a letter from someone already before as CISF personal had suggested, he told it was not needed as they are allowing everyone with these conditions board the next flight whether VBM or non-VBM. All they needed from me was a death certificate, and passport so that they could make copies and then I was good to go.  


  • As I said, the officer was really sweet and kind. We even talked about my father etc. I think now they have a system where you can mail them these documents in such cases prior. 

Facts: Keep the buffer of at least 7-8 hours after your land. The entire process from immigration to grouping to baggage collection to COVID facility took me overnight i.e 8 hours. If you do have an onward journey on a non-VBM flight and you have booked not keeping this buffer in mind, then you may be at trouble because domestic is also slow.


MY FRIEND ITISHREE'S EXPERIENCE ON VBM PHASE I (JFK - BLR) 


Itishree, who is one of my friends, took the Evacuation flight a month before me on VBM Phase 1, and here's her experience: 


"We were all set to come back to India as per our plan but unfortunately, India announced its lockdown due to COVID-19 just 4 days before our scheduled flight. We were stuck there for 2 months until the evacuation flight started. We registered ourselves in the Indian embassy to get a chance to travel back. We were waiting for our luck to shine as the next process was completely depending on the lottery system. 


We were desperately waiting for a call from the embassy but it was vain in the first phase. We were sad and frustrated as India was continuously extending the lockdown period and 2/3 repatriation flight was operating from New York in each phase. On the other hand, the joining date of a new job in India was approaching and we were maxing out our visa period. We wrote lots of emails to the embassy, consulate, and did a lot of phone calls but nothing worked out. One fine morning we messaged consulate general new york, fortunately, he understood our case and consider us to take the next scheduled evacuation flight which was on 25th May. We got a selection email but that was not the end of our misfortune, did not know whether we are traveling or not as we didn't receive any info about our tickets before 24 hours of departure. The price of the ticket was three times more than regular tickets. At least we manage to get tickets last night before 25th May. Within a few hours, we managed to vacate and reached the airport.  


We reached the airport at 7 am as departure was at 11.We saw many lottery winners having their mask on, were standing in a big queue. The line was moving very smoothly. First, we got our temperature checked then one photographer came, took some pics of my kids and ours.we completed all our immigration check by 8:30 am and waited there for boarding. Boarding started bunch by bunch around 10/10:15 again with a temperature check. All flight attendants were in a PPE suit, very less contact with passengers.we found food packets and water bottles on our seats along with masks, hand sanitizer, and face shield. Food was quite enough though I had carried a lot of food as I was traveling with kids.food was okay having veg burgers, a lot of snacks, juice. We also found all other passengers were fully prepared for food and entertainment as there was no entertaining system available.  


Our flight was to Bengaluru via Delhi so it halted for some time for Delhi passenger to get off. In the meantime one of the passengers had fainted, the flight took off after doctor visit and clearance to take off. Anyway, we reached Bengaluru in time, what a great relief for us after so many ups and downs.  


It was already mentioned to us that all international passenger has to go for seven days of hotel quarantine. We selected a 3-star hotel near our home. After several temperature checking and filling declaration forms at the different places in the airport we were taken to the hotel by the government bus escalating by police we reached the hotel around 11 o'clock in the night. In the hotel, all our luggage got sanitized and again after temperature checked we did check in to the hotel. We had a good sleep after all these turmoils of getting repatriation flight to reach India. 


Here I need to thank the Indian government for providing evacuation flights for Indians stranded in the USA, though the process was complicated and bit harassing. Maybe it can be managed in a better way but anyway my flight experience was good." 


-----------------------------------My friend's experience comes to an end here---------------------------------




WHY WE NEED TO KNOW THE STATE RULES…

We need to be aware of the state quarantine rules before boarding our flight. Before boarding the flight as I was researching a lot online, I managed to get a list of nodal officers of each state, however, another friend of mine who is a lawyer suggested that this list contains generic numbers which were available for migrant workers and hence may not work at this time. He suggested that I get in touch with Bihar Bhawan in Delhi which I did but it wasn't of much help to me in a short period. Tamil Nadu requires an e-pass, Bihar has other rules, etc. 


WHAT IF YOU HAVE AN ONWARD JOURNEY ON A NON-VBM FLIGHT? 


If you are landing in Delhi and that's your final port of arrival, then you have a mandatory quarantine in Delhi. If you have booked any other flight than the Vande Bharat Flight for an onward domestic transfer separately, then also your final port of arrival in Delhi, and in that case too you will be institutionally quarantined at Delhi barring those 4 clauses where we can talk to the officer in the end. Anyone can talk to the officer, but by my experience there, I was seen only these 4 cases were entertained, and rest all were hotel quarantined for 7 days. Your experience might differ, and that would depend on officer discretion and change of rules.  


WHAT IF YOU HAVE AN ONWARD JOURNEY ON A VBM FLIGHT? 


However, if you have an onward domestic transfer as a Vande Bharat Flight from Delhi then you will be directly transferred and you will quarantine at your final destination. For example, if you book a direct Air India Flight from JFK to Bangalore via Delhi on a Vande Bharat Flight then your final destination or final port of entry is in Bangalore.   


HOW WAS MY DOMESTIC FLIGHT EXPERIENCE? 



  • If you are in a non-VBM flight and they have already allowed you home quarantine for your state, you will need to go from COVID Triage back to the domestic departure. What they are doing at domestic departure is, at the exit they make you fill the health undertaking form(which I would suggest, do not fill as of yet). They are sanitizing your bags with a liquid, and hence be careful to not put your bags in such a way that it could get wet. I accidentally put my backpack on the ground, not knowing that it had a pool of sanitizing liquid so it got a little wet and I got annoyed. I would also suggest carrying sturdy bags/hard cases because in domestic sectors they are sanitizing with a liquid and also on the baggage collection counter, the rail is wet so to avoid stains, etc best to carry sturdy cases.  

  • Thereafter, they will check your ID card from inside the booth. Then you proceed in. Inside, if you are taking an onward Air India flight, it is very confusing how many times they make you fill the health undertaking form. Hence, the form that you get outside was of no use to me, as the Air India required us to scan the QR code at their entry point. So what you do is, scan the QR code on your phone which will redirect you to health undertaking form.  

  • Then fill the form online and show the confirmation on your mail at the entry point. I found it very weird because I believe not everyone would be internet savvy and since I already had a paper version of it from outside, which they were not accepting at Air India entry, it left me very confused as to why? 

  •  It was the first time that I had booked a business class on the domestic sector from DEL-PAT because the economy class was not available. However, to my surprise, no one was entertaining the passengers at the Business Class counter and we were told to wait at the Economy class queue which wasn't an issue, however, it took forever(about an hour) for them to start working on issuing tickets as we stood in line and watched in apathy. 

  • Fact: I booked Air India on an onward journey thinking that maybe they will connect the PNR to my VBM flight which they said will not do. Hence, you can book any domestic flight in that case, and not necessarily just Air India. 

  • Secondly, the queue at the security was huge. There was social distancing maintained by people themselves. At the gate, they make you fill the undertaking form again in paper and then provide the kit that contains the mask, face shield, hand sanitizer, etc.  

  • I did not like the business class, as there were no services on the flight and it felt like an economy class with a sofa instead of a seat at double the cost. In the domestic sector, middle seats are also allowed to be occupied hence wearing the mask and the shield is good advice. After we landed, we collected our baggage and voila! we were in our hometown Patna. 

AND LASTLY, HOW DID I NOT CATCH COVID? 


This is a surprise to me as well, as airports can be breeding grounds of such viruses if not sanitized properly. However, throughout the Delhi International Airport, the arrangements were appreciable except for the COVID Triage Facility. I had my masks put on at all times, and I had hand sanitizer attached to my backpack, for the most part, to frequently sanitize my hands. The domestic sector did not have empty middle seats but they had social distancing boxes at the baggage collection counter in the Patna airport. My friend Itishree and her family also arrived safe and healthy. 


In the case of COVID, no one can say, if you can get it or not, but it's safe to build your immunity(Vit C, D, Zinc) in a few days before you board the flight. One of our friends was the first case of COVID in Gujarat when she landed in February and she says she had sanitized everything and even then got it. In case if you feel unwell after you land even after the initial hotel quarantine or if you are quarantining at home, then in that case you need to inform the helpline number, isolate yourself in your home before they get you to institutional quarantine. 


Hope this information was helpful and everyone who urgently needs to come to India now knows how to :) 




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