Of all the COVID-induced terms in the glossary, the three words that rankle the most have to be ‘the new normal’. This innocuous phrase camouflages every single pain that the pandemic has brought into our lives since its unwanted entry earlier this year.
From being forced to socially distance ourselves to turning our cosy homes into meeting zones and making fashion statements out of dreary masks, the “new normal” is a seriously unpleasant reality. Perhaps, nowhere is the disruption more evident than in travel.
The industry may be in disarray but as they say, it is what it is and what’s got to be done has got to be done. So, if you are among the lakhs who have to take an arduous journey back home, it would be worthwhile to know what you are in for.
For Indians, the new era of travel dawned on May 7, when the government embarked on the world’s largest evacuation exercise, the Vande Bharat Mission. Thus far, around 1,197 repatriation flights have been undertaken to bring back around 2.5 lakh Indians from various parts of the world.
Fortunately, air transport bubbles are now being arranged between India and the US, UK, UAE, France and a few other countries, leading the way to gradually normalising air travel.
But will it ever return to the times when a passport, visa and a suitcase were all that you needed to take off? Your bet is as good as mine! For now, let’s accept that the word ‘repatriation’ will be prefixed before the term ‘flight’ for the foreseeable future.
The repatriation journey is indeed ahem….memorable (to put it mildly)… in more ways than one. For the lucky ones who haven’t seen the insides of an aircraft since March 2020, here’s a first-hand account of what flying is like this season.
Part 1: The Prep
I took the Air India Express VBM flight a few weeks ago from the UAE to Kerala. Now, this has been a particularly busy sector and it’s not surprising why.
A lot of them wanted to return for varied reasons. Besides, there were Indians who had flown from India, only to be stranded in the UAE because of the lockdown and they were desperate to get back home. Needless to say, until a few weeks ago, a ticket on this segment was quite difficult to procure. Fortunately, I secured one with relative ease but the challenge had just begun.
‘Reach the airport at least five hours before your repatriation flight’, was the stern warning given by the agent.
No COVID test was mandatory but registering on the website of the Consul General of India (https://www.cgidubai.gov.in/covid_register/), to add to the database of Indians wanting to return, certainly was.
At the entrance stood a friendly Marhaba service representative, the online meet-and-greet service that helps you through all formalities.
My luggage was taken care of and soon I was seated comfortably before being handed the paraphernalia that flying these days requires—masks, shield, sanitiser pouches and disclaimer forms. (Tip 2: 2020 is not the year for flaunting your airport looks or designer suitcases filled to the brim. With only 25 kg being the upper limit, try and avoid excess baggage as much as possible).
The forms filled up, the next step was the big one—the rapid COVID test. These stations were set up inside the departure terminal (since August 16, it has been relocated to a site outside the airport). A health worker administered the blood test with a slight prick on my finger and almost immediately affixed the ‘Fit to travel’ sticker on my passport.
The rest of the procedures were like pre-Corona days until I received the boarding pass and moved towards the gate after the (socially distanced) security check.
Part 2: At the Boarding Gate
Frankly, the shock and awe of our new way of living hit me at the boarding gate. Was I on the sets of a tacky low-budget sci-fi film? It seemed so!
I have always found airports to be a vibrant meeting ground of people from different races, nationalities and colours, but COVID had painted us all white. From passengers carefully selecting their seats in the waiting area to some people constantly sanitising their mobiles in the charging zone, the unspoken words appeared to be: Please stay away, don’t touch my bag, maintain distance. Who said travel was about making new friends?
Part 3: The Flight
Were they smiling or scowling? It was hard to tell.
With the crew making clear there was no service available, you had no choice but to settle your overhead luggage and snuggle into your seat all by yourself.
In my nearly three decades of air travel, this flight was probably the quietest. Imagine travelling without being able to see your co-passengers face. Was it a man, woman or child beneath that mask and white sheet sitting next to you?
How I missed the elements of a typically crowded Indian flight—the cackle of cranky children or the incessant chatter of women, the constant buzzing for the crew and of course, the entertainment. The eerie silence continued until we arrived at the destination, Kochi. (Tip 3: Be armed with patience. Once you land, it takes a while to exit as new rules indicate that the previous flight needs to deplane first. My waiting time: 45 minutes).
Part 4: Kochi – After the landing
The first thing we were asked to do, before immigration formalities, was to dispose off the protective clothing and shield in a biohazard bin. The announcer, dressed in PPE kit himself, patiently repeated the instructions to every passenger.
As I walked towards the exit, I noticed the barricaded duty-free shops requesting shoppers to pick their choice of the item—they would shop it for them, package it and accept payment, rather than have the space crowded with shoppers. Impressive!
At the exit, once again, details were noted down—contact numbers, commute (public transport or prepaid taxi or private vehicle), and such.
I had ordered a private vehicle and the full plexiglass shield between the driver and me was another reassuring sign that enough care was being taken by both, the authorities and citizens. On the way home, I saw giant hoardings offering information about Corona and ‘break the chain posters’.
Part 6: The Stay
Travel in the post-COVID world isn’t just waltzing into a new city, I realised. The state machinery has been taking no chances despite the mandatory 14-day quarantine.
My family had been given strict instructions on how to isolate—a separate room, separate plates, staying indoors and all that jazz. Over the next two weeks, I received six calls from ASHA workers, one from a counsellor, a visit by a policeman and more ‘Dos and Don’ts’ by health workers. Almost two weeks later, I got a test done, again at the behest of the authorities. (I tested negative, FYI, otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this).
So, What’s Next?
While Kerala has seen a spike in cases, all the earnest measures taken are bound to flatten the curve.
Though most of its famed Ayurvedic retreats have shut their doors, preferring to reopen in October or November, the government is planning to focus on local tourism. The Keralam Kaanam initiative by the Association of Tourism and Trade Organisation of India (ATTOI), is especially impressive, as it focuses on hotels offering competitive and considerably lower rates to attract domestic tourists.
Hopefully, Kerala’s verdant greens and stunning resorts will once again welcome foreign and NRI tourists. Only, they have to be prepared for the ‘new normal’ of flying in the times of a pandemic.