From Thursday, 64 flights to airlift 15k Indians stuck abroad in a week

NEW DELHI: A massive airlift operation will get underway on Thursday with 64 flights bringing back close to 15,000 Indian nationals from 12 countries in the first week of the ambitious exercise to repatriate lakhs of people. The operation, as foreign minister S Jaishankar said in a tweet, is titled ‘Vande Bharat Mission’.

Apart from the Gulf, official sources said, non-scheduled commercial aircraft will fly out stranded Indians from the US, the UK, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. The number of Indians lining up to return is expected to far exceed the 1,90,000, who initially registered and could be as many as 4 lakh, civil aviation minister Hardeep Puri said.
The return of lakhs of Indians over the following weeks marks a new challenge for India’s war against Covid-19 as the returnees will need to be screened and placed under institutional quarantine or admitted to hospitals if they show symptoms. All states, particularly those like Kerala and Maharashtra, need to prepare large facilities to hold passengers in isolation for quarantine and testing.
Flying back from the US and the UK to India will cost Rs 1 lakh and Rs 50,000, respectively, for the special flights being operated by Air India. The fare range starts at Rs 12,000 for a Dhaka-Delhi flight and one of the highest demand route — Dubai-Kochi — will cost Rs 16,000 per person. The arrangements are for those unable to return after India banned international flight to isolate the country from transmission of Covid-19 from foreign shores.

Official sources said as many as 84 Indians abroad had died after contracting Covid-19 and 10,000 remained infected. Most of the infections are in the Gulf and Singapore. The initial phase of the exercise will not cover OCIs, sources said. Indian workers are stranded in large numbers in several countries.
Sources also said Indians looking to travel will have to undergo not just medical screening but also Covid tests wherever the facility is available. Like in the UAE, where Indians will have to take rapid antibody tests before they’re allowed to board the aircraft.
Puri said on Tuesday, “In the first week (May 7-13), Air India will operate 64 flights to 12 countries on which we expect to bring back about 15,000 Indians back home. Already, about 2 lakh Indians abroad have registered to return to the country. We do not know what the final number of Indians who return will be. It could be 4 lakh.”

The MEA has designated senior officials (joint and additional secretaries) to coordinate with each state where Indian nationals will be landing. Those facing deportation in the Gulf will be on top of the priority list of “compelling cases”. They will be followed by migrant labour, non-permanent visa holders, pregnant women, the elderly, those facing medical emergencies, tourists and students.
India will ramp up flights gradually based on the experience of the first week of operations. “States need to be ready (with quarantine facilities) and accordingly we will plan for subsequent weeks. In the first week, all flights will be by Air India and later, private airlines can also contribute towards bringing back stranded Indians,” Puri said.
The minister added that the fares for the flights were lower than the cost of operating these special flights — which could be flying out only partially full or empty.
Also, several Indians who are citizens of foreign countries or are green card holders are currently stranded here due to temporary suspension of commercial flights. “People like them who are willing to pay can fly out on these flights,” Puri said.
Sources said the last three rows on each aircraft will be kept vacant to seat passengers showing symptoms en route. Food boxes will be given to passengers for the flight to minimise interaction with crew. Flyers will need to wear masks throughout the journey and crew will be in personal protective gear. Inflight entertainment systems will not be operational to minimise contact with surfaces.
Puri said keeping middle seats vacant and operating a flight with one-third seats unsold was not viable. Almost all international airlines operating repatriation flights have also done so as the idea is to get as many people home as possible. “All passengers will be quarantined and no one is allowed to go for even home quarantine. And with masks mandatory, keeping middle seats vacant on such flights may not be necessary. However, we have asked Air India to take the home ministry’s nod for the same,” a source said.
In the first week, the maximum number of 3,150 people are expected to return on 15 flights to Kerala from seven countries. This will be followed by about 2,150 returning to Tamil Nadu (Chennai and Trichy) on 11 flights from nine countries. About 1,900 will return to Mumbai on seven flights from six countries.
“Delhi figures will take some time to finalise as authorities are awaiting word on quarantine facilities available,” a source said. All Indians returning on these flights will need to spend 14 days in either hospital or a designated quarantine facility against payment.



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