A native of Kochi, Sanjay Menon tells international travellers on what to expect when taking the repatriation flight to come to India.

Passengers at the London Heathrow Airport ready to board Air India repatriation flight to India.
Coronavirus Travel Tuesday, June 02, 2020 - 13:50
Written by  Sanjay Menon

I am an entrepreneur who runs a small software development firm in Kerala. I reached the United Kingdom (UK) in February for work. The day before the lockdown in India, I had a meeting in London. Since then, I was stuck in the UK.

Luckily, I was able to travel back in the first repatriation flight from London to Cochin on May 19.

This post is for the benefit of all people stuck outside India and wants to travel back.

How to register?

The High Commission of India (HCI) had released a link to register in April. I had been following the HCI on Facebook and as soon as they had released the link, I had registered with them. I had also registered in the Norka website from Kerala government, too.

You will not get any acknowledgement from HCI, so you are really shooting in the dark and hoping the registration has gone through. I received another email from the HCI, asking me to add further fields. Please note that I had conveyed my current situation to them descriptively to ensure my case was considered: 

> There was a COVID-19 death opposite my house in London.
> My landlord is a key worker and still goes to work which puts me at risk. Also, I had two flatmates from Italy as well.
> My visa was expiring on May 15 (now expired).
> I did not have insurance coverage with the National Health Service (NHS) in case something happens.

A few days after this, around the first week of May, we got to know that the repatriation flights are starting on May 7.

While following the messages on Facebook, I saw that a person named Anoop had started a Whatsapp group for “Malayalees stranded in UK” and I joined the same seeing his posts on Facebook.  We tried to share as much information that we could gather from HCI, the Indian government, airline officials etc, to help all of us with the potential travel. We also helped the elderly citizens and pregnant ladies with all possible support for a smoother journey.

Getting on the list

This was a real lottery and we are not sure what exactly are the norms. Anyway, I received an email from the HCI that I was shortlisted. Following this, many among us got follow-up calls from HCI directly, which I did not receive. Many even got the call multiple times.

On May 17, I received a call directly from the Air India Birmingham office stating that I was shortlisted for the flight and asked for my payment details. I asked them to email me a link to complete payment but I was asked to provide my card details directly.

Before I gave my card details, I verified if the number was correct. In their email, HCI had given us a list of phone numbers, from which we can expect calls from Air India. The number was from the list. Beware of scam and ensure you make all necessary checks before sharing details.

I also checked with them (the airlines) for my passport number and my email id and once they confirmed the same, I gave my card details. I was lucky enough to receive my ticket while I was on the call with Air India, which was not the case for many.

The initial emails from HCI had our ticket prices at  British Pond GBP 539 (Rs 50,411). When Air India called us, we were told it is GBP 596 (Rs 55,743). I informed them the same, and after a few hours, I received an email from Air India confirming this change in the ticket price, which was a surprise for many.Note: Many people received calls from Air India and made payments but did not receive the tickets. If something similar happens, please go to the airport directly.

Unfortunately, many people got calls from HCI and then emails that Air India would contact them but nothing happened after that, which was a shame.

So please understand that until you have the ticket in hand, there is no guarantee that you are on the flight.

The prep before D Day

After reading various blogs and posts, I got to prepare for my trip. As per my ticket, I ensured that I had only two pieces of check-in luggage, which was not exceeding 46 kgs. I also had a piece of hand luggage, which weighed 5-6 kgs and my laptop bag. This is as per the information on the ticket that our baggage allowance was 23 kgs (2 pieces) plus 8 kgs hand luggage plus a laptop bag.

I knew we will have only limited food so I bought a couple of sandwiches so that I have additional food. Also, I had five pairs of rubber gloves, five masks and a hand sanitiser, so that I could keep changing my gloves. Thanks to a friend, I was able to procure all of this before my journey.

I am usually an e-ticket person but this time, I did not want any last-minute surprises and took a printout of my ticket and the pass that HCI had mailed me.

The D Day

The flight was scheduled for May 19 at 1.15 pm, but I wanted to get there earlier as I knew there would be a big queue. Plus, I wanted to help senior citizens and pregnant women who were travelling alone.

I arrived at the airport a little after 9.40 am. It was quite a big line. There are officials who confirm your ticket, and also, if you have paid and not received the tickets, you can check with them for the same.

Once inside the terminal, we were directed to a smaller queue, which is controlled by a staff member and we are then sent in small numbers to join the Air India line. This is when we had the next surprise.

Air India officials, who started selling business class tickets for a cheaper rate - additional GBP 596, informed us that only one hand baggage is allowed and we had to pay GBP 140 (Rs 13,094) additional for the bag.

I was shocked/surprised and walked on towards the counter because I was not informed by the airline executive, who had called me to complete my booking, that we were allowed to carry only one piece of hand luggage.

An Air India staff came and rudely told us we will not be allowed on the airline if we are carrying a laptop bag and an additional bag, citing “no space in flight”, etc. Now,  I  understand this is not a commercial airline and that it is a repatriation flight. We are all gracious and thank all the staff who helped us get across the line, but we also expect a little more compassion rather than being shouted at.

What followed was a series of exchanges between the Air India staff and other passengers.

I was carrying my work laptop and my hand luggage had two pairs of shoes and a floater. There was no way it was going to fit inside my laptop bag, so I was prepared to pay an additional amount, as I had no other options. But I saw many people, including students, scrambling to get their stuff together.

A gentleman from Wayanad, who I incidentally ended up sitting with, then graciously offered to check-in my baggage as he had only one bag and thereby diffused the situation. After showing the contents of my hand luggage to him and giving my business card, he accepted my bag and checked it in.

To ensure everybody is clear:
> Total 46 kgs check-in luggage: 23 kgs x 2 pieces.
> Hand luggage: Only one piece allowed. Additional charge for more pieces of hand luggage.

After this, we did our security screenings, which was uneventful except for the fact that they are more strict. Jackets, belts, shoes, handkerchiefs — everything basically goes on the tray.

Once this was done, we started walking towards our gate. Elderly citizens and pregnant women, please note, there are free buggy services that you can avail.

After the long walk to the gate, one thing we noticed was the serpentine queues without following physical distancing for the thermal test.

Another thing was, many people were thirsty but either they did not carry a bottle that they could refill from the water fountain or they had to pay GBP 2 (Rs 187) from the vending machines. Please note, both these options only give cold water, which was an issue for some of the elderly.

So, it is better to carry an empty bottle so that you can complete security checks without the hassle of carrying liquid and then proceed to refill them. We helped to buy bottles for many people here because by the time you get there, you are drained.

After thermal temperature checks, where they record all our temperatures, we need to wait until boarding starts. Again, by the usual practice, people crowd to get in. Please wait as your seats are confirmed and board only when the queue has sufficiently reduced.

The flight was delayed, because, as expected, the thermal scanning and all procedures took time. Though the flight was scheduled for departure at 1.50 pm, we took off closer to 3.30 pm.

The flight

Once we boarded the flight, we were given a blue bag with two snack boxes and two bottles of water. This would be already kept in our seats. We were informed that we can ask for more water, but not food.

Note: Request everyone to carry additional sandwiches/biscuits/chocolates, especially if you are diabetic or just generally hungry. 

In addition to the snack box, they provide face masks and a face shield (that resembles a helmet), which is useful. Please wear the same.

Please note that Air India did not provide gloves. I had carried five pairs for the flight and now I feel I should have carried more. The rubber gloves I carried end up tearing. Example, while pointing the air condition vent towards you, the glove gets stuck and while pulling it out, there are chances of tearing them. So I would advise you to carry at least 10 pairs so that you can keep disposing of them.

The rest of the journey was quite uneventful and comfortable. The entertainment system does not work, so download movies on your phone/Netflix/Prime etc for entertainment.

We were on a London Heathrow-Cochin or LHR-COK/Vijayawada flight, where Vijayawada (in Andhra Pradesh) was the feeder. This meant we stopped at Mumbai for a short duration and passengers got down for Vijayawada and we proceeded to Cochin. We arrived in Mumbai around 4.20 am.

Please note no further snacks would be provided.

We arrived in Cochin on May 20 at 7.15 am. There was a 30-minute delay.

Please note the flight is packed, that is, the middle seats are not left free. I was lucky that the person in the middle seat sat in another seat with a friend. This was because some elderly people were given business class upgrades, which left one or two seats empty.

The last leg: Quarantine, testing

In Cochin, we exited the aircraft, 30 passengers at a time, to avoid queuing up. We were given forms in London, which we had to fill. We did the thermal monitoring first after we submitted the forms and if our temperatures are normal, we can proceed towards the immigration and then towards hand baggage scan (as usual) and then take the escalator/elevator to the baggage section.

Note: The duty-free is shut, so if you want to buy alcohol or chocolates do that before you get to Heathrow, because everything is shut there as well. Also, please carry your own pen to fill the form so that you can avoid exchanging pens.

After we collected our baggage, which was wet, we moved towards the health service desk, which is just after customs. At the health service desk, we were asked about our destination and to fill another form. Now, this part is something that keeps changing as per state and Central government decisions.

For us, on May 20, all of us were instructed to hop on the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (RTC) bus, except pregnant women, elderly persons above the age of 75, families with small children and the last category — if you can prove you are not well beyond question. The last category is quite tough as you need extensive proof. A couple of passengers (senior citizens above 60+) with me had few documents but that was not enough to convince them and they were asked to get on the bus as well.

There are buses for all districts from the airport and we need to get on the bus. We were given a small food packet before we got on. It contained biscuits, fruit bun and a sweet bun along with a bottle of water. The buses wait for all passengers to arrive before they start, so no point rushing to get on the bus.

Since I was travelling to Cochin, I was taken to Xavier Institute of Management and Entrepreneurship (XIME) in Kalamassery. One set of people was taken to the boys’ hostel. Our bus was taken to the girls’ hostel. There we need to register with the health officer and if it is government quarantine, you would be allotted your room.

Since I am an entrepreneur, I opted for paid quarantine as I needed the WiFi and desk facilities to work the next 14 days. I was asked to wait as they (the health officials) will call for the cab themselves. These are special cabs with the driver separated by a shield in the vehicle. We need to pay for this.

To be honest, most of us expected a health desk at the airport or the quarantine centre where there is a list of paid quarantine centres and we can choose. There was nothing like that. Luckily, through the WhatsApp group, I was already in touch with a four-star hotel in Cochin and I informed the officials of the same and they arranged the taxi. I pay Rs 2,600 per day. I get three meals a day, plus tea and coffee.

Things to note is that: as of now, 14 days quarantine is a must. No PCR test was done, only the thermal temperature check was done at the Cochin International Airport. This is a fluid situation, so this needs to be monitored whenever others travel.

I finally arrived at my hotel around 3 pm IST, a whole 25–26 hours since I stood in line at Heathrow. I was lucky I am from Cochin. I cannot think of the elderly who had to travel in the Kerala RTC bus, all the way to Kannur and Kasaragod. I was told they got home extremely late in the night. So if you want to travel, please be prepared for this, else you are better off where you are.

An hour after we landed in Cochin, I received three calls from the Commissioners office and two calls from health officers, who checked up on me and noted down where I am staying etc. I believe this is going to be a daily exercise from now on.

On the third and fourth day after arrival, some health officials arrived at the hotel to test all returnees who were quarantined there. Fortunately, my test results turned negative. 

I am sure many people are nervous about travelling. There are still many in the UK who are stranded and would like to come back. I request the Ministry of External Affairs to make the necessary arrangements.

I want to end by saying that it is safe to travel and the government and airlines have taken all necessary precautions. 

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