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Being stuck in a country abroad, especially during the current scenario, can be daunting. To ease the worry of stranded foreigners and travellers, countries around the world have been undertaking rescue missions to get citizens back to home base. Here is a first-hand account of one such rescue flight from Chicago to Mumbai. By Harshita Bajpai

Pre-Flight Preparations

Rescue Flight
Photo Courtesy: Harshita Bajpai

I study in Florida where the number of COVID-19 cases has been rising almost without any recovery. Initially, I felt a little unwell so I refused to travel back to India. However, as I got better, my family started keeping a lookout for a way to get me home after India went into a complete lockdown overnight.

By April 5, there were news articles and circulars being passed around for a rescue operation starting May 7. However, Florida was still generous with their ‘lockdown‘ in April. Men were still soaking up the sun, and my friends and I even ordered pizza multiple times. But, on April 12, the government declared all 50 states a ‘Major Disaster’. My family got worried on hearing this and reached out to the Embassy in Washington for help.

Three days later, on April 15, the Consulate General of India, Atlanta responded by expressing concern about the situation but with no hopes of any rescue flight yet. They, however, mentioned that if I needed any support, they would lend a hand. Since I was doing okay, I dropped the ball.

By April 26, a circular about a rescue flight for Indian citizens in Australia was doing the rounds. My family contacted the embassy once again, but no luck. About a week later, on May 4, my best friend sent me circular released by the Press Information Bureau of India which briefed about the pre and post-rescue flight operations slated to start on May 7. The following day, a detailed version of this rescue operation was released along with a registration form on their website.

The detailed order outlined the rescue operation and how the Ministry of Home Affairs would be prioritising cases of distress, laid-off migrant workers, people whose visas are slated to expire, students, pregnant ladies, elderly people, etc. Luckily, my mother received a flight plan – possibly released by the Ministry of External Affairs – for a flight plan set to commence between May 7 and 13.

I couldn’t take the first flight as I was studying for a test for later that week. Plus, I didn’t think I had any chance of getting home amongst the thousands who had already registered for this. Guess it was up to the universe to make it happen for me!

However, two days later on May 9, I got a call from the Embassy stating that my name had been automatically generated in their system. They further told me that I was on the waitlist, and if anyone cancels, I could get on the flight.

That midnight, the embassy called saying that someone had cancelled and I would have to make the payment as soon as possible. That night, Air India and the Indian Embassy stayed up till 3 am with me to ensure I have a confirmed ticket. I managed to secure a flight from the regional airport to Atlanta, and from there to Chicago for May 11.

The Flight

Rescue Flight
Photo Courtesy: Harshita Bajpai

The day before the flight, the embassy called in the morning for final confirmation. They even wished me luck for my travels, expressing how much he hoped I got on the flight since I was already given a little ray of hope. After spending the entire day packing with my friends, I ate a heavy breakfast on the morning of the flight. I even packed myself a box of hummus with carrots and Nutella pretzel sticks. “Who’s going to risk eating in a plane?” I thought.

The first leg of the journey to Atlanta and Chicago was quite chill, and many people (including children!) weren’t wearing masks at the airport either. I arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport around 05:00 pm, six hours before my flight.

The terminal itself had just Air India flights operating – Chicago to Chennai via Mumbai. The floor was covered with markings at least four feet apart. With many people adhering to social distancing norms, I finally got through the check-in. Air India was exceptionally strict about luggage allowance. This meant that if you have cabin baggage and an additional purse, you would be required to shove it in your bigger bags.

It took me over three hours to complete my check-in. They even stuck a tiny sticker on my passport with our body temperatures. These stickers had to be shown on arrival along with a form which was emailed to us earlier. The form stated that we [the passengers] wouldn’t blame the airlines if we fell sick and that we would abide by the 14-day quarantine protocols upon landing. There was press at the airport documenting everything and taking our interviews. Apart from a duty-free shop and another store selling packaged foods, everything else was shut.

Since the departure was at 11:45 pm, everyone had started boarding around 09:00 pm. Staggered boarding and de-boarding took place in brackets of four-to-five rows. The cabin crew was covered head-to-toe in a cloth-bag like fabric and a mask. The pilots, however, were dressed in their usual fab attire. On entering the flight, the crew gave us all sanitiser pouches, wipes, and masks. I was so paranoid that I sanitised the window panels and seat belts too!

A face shield and our food were already kept under our seats in bags. Apart from the usual announcement related to inflight safety, it even stated that passengers are required to wear the shield and mask throughout the journey. They even advised against queuing up near the lavatories, limiting washroom use, and encouraged the use of sanitisers.

Although there was a sense of tension in the air, it seemed like everyone was more relieved to get back home. When the plane took off, everyone clapped and cheered!

Landing Protocols

 

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The flight landed at 01:00 am on May 13. Passengers heading to Chennai disembarked first so they could carry on with their journey. On leaving the aircraft, we got our temperatures checked, submitted our undertaking form, showed the Aarogya Setu app on our phones to the cops, and headed straight for immigration. Unlike the USA, the duty-free shops at the Mumbai airport were shut and the airport was deserted.

After luggage and customs, Air India had set up small counters – segregated area wise – where we could get our transportations for our quarantine hotels. Prior to the flights, the state government sent out a list of shortlisted hotels where we would be required to stay for 14 days before heading home. I opted for a hotel near town, despite living in Thane, as the government urged us to choose an area that would require minimal travelling.

Next, the Mumbai police checked everyone’s transportation details and allowed us to head to our respective buses. After a long wait, the bus finally left at 07:00 am for our quarantine hotels.

Kudos to the Indian Embassy, here and in the US; Air India and their entire crew; the Airport Authority of India; Mumbai Police; Military commanders at the airport; Immigration officers; clerks; the transportation team; healthcare workers; and the hotel staff for making this possible for all of us. Thank you, you’re all superheroes!

In case you’re travelling in a rescue flight, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Be patient. You have a long journey to go.
  2. Follow protocols and make the process easier for everybody.
  3. You are allowed only one cabin luggage, two check-in bags (a total of 23 kilograms). If your bags are overweight, it would lead to a penalty of USD 130. Should you wish to carry an additional bag, you need to pay USD 230.
  4. Download the Aarogya Setu app, and keep an Indian SIM in handy upon landing.
  5. Carry some local currency as hotel transportation is on you.
  6. Remember to thank all the frontline workers you see on your way. They’re awesome!

Related: #SomeGoodNews: Air India To Now Evacuate Stranded Passengers Within The Country