Indian Civil Aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri today revealed more details, including the number of flights, their routes as well as ticket prices, related to the air evacuation of Indians stranded abroad in the aftermath of the worldwide Coronavirus lock-down.
National carrier Air India will conduct 64 flights between May 7 and May 13 to six countries in the Persian Gulf, the US, the UK, Singapore and Bangladesh to bring back a total of around 15,000 people during the seven days.
Depending on how the on-the-ground situation looks, the number of flights will be modified for the second week, he said, adding that private airlines too may be allowed to join in.
The highest evacuation priority will be given to those who are genuinely stranded in foreign countries and not ordinarily resident in such countries.
These include people who are medically distressed, people whose visas have run out, who have been deported and people who went abroad on a temporary visit.
The initial plan, he said, was to bring back about 1.9 lakh passengers, but the ministry of external affairs has got requests and demands from a considerably larger number of Indians who wish to return home.
However, he cautioned that the expansion of the operation depends on what happens back home in India. He pointed out that the receiving states like Kerala, Punjab, Karnataka and Maharashtra have to be ready with quarantine facilities so that the people can be airlifted back to India.
FLIGHT DETAILS AND FARES
Flights will be operated from six Persian Gulf countries — UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait.
Among these, UAE will see the maximum number of flights at 10, followed by 5 each from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and 2 each from Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.
There will be 7 flights each from the US, the UK and Bangladesh; and 5 each from Singapore and Philippines.
The US flights will depart from New Jersey, Washington DC, Chicago and San Francisco, and will cost $1,360 to the passengers.
The flights from the UK will be from London to the Indian cities of Mumbai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Delhi, and will cost 540 British pounds.
At 15, the highest number of flights will be to the state of Kerala, where the government has expressed willingness to accommodate up to 2 lakh people in various quarantine facilities. A total of 3,150 passengers from seven countries will touch down in Kerala in the first week.
The next highest number will be of Tamil Nadu, with 11 flights bringing 2,150 passengers from 9 countries in the first week.
The third is Maharashtra with 1,900 passengers on 7 flights from 6 countries, followed by Telangana with 7 flights from 6 countries carrying 1,700 passengers.
Gujarat will get 1,100 passengers on 5 flights from 5 countries, while Karnataka will get 650 passengers in the first week from 3 countries on 3 flights.
There will be 1 flight to Uttar Pradesh and Punjab with 200 passengers each, and 2 flights to Jammu & Kashmir.
11 flights from 9 countries are planned to Delhi, but there could be some delays in their operation, Puri said, pointing out that coordination has to be established with several state governments such as Delhi and Haryana for these passengers.
All those who return have to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine at facilities established by their respective state governments.
The government will also allow those Indians who want to go to these countries for work and other related purposes to go in the same flights on the onward journey to these countries. Details of the same will be announced later, he said.
Puri, a former diplomat, said the operation is likely to be ramped up in the coming weeks.
“The initial plan was for bringing 1.9 lakh people. As the MEA considered this, my understanding is that many more people expressed an interest to travel…But the ramping up itself will have to be based on the actual experience on the ground,” he said, pointing to the unpredictable way the virus has behaved in India so far.
India had gone in for a complete lockdown on March 25, when the total number of Coronavirus cases in the country was just around 550.
However, after 42 days of lock-down, the number of cases has zoomed to 48,000.
“We are dealing with an invisible enemy, a virus whose behavior is difficult to predict. When we did the civil aviation lock-down, we did it in the expectation that we’ll get control on the numbers,” he pointed out, and warned that we need to ensure that the influx of passengers does not set off a ‘second wave’ of foreign-origin Coronavirus infections in the country.
“We need to take safeguards, but those who are in distress, we have to deal with that,” he said.
In addition to the above operation, several thousands of Indians will also be brought home by via naval ships from the Middle East.