First Air India repatriation flight to take off from UK with 250 Indians

LONDON: Around 250 Indian students and tourists stranded in the UK due to the coronavirus-induced lockdown for nearly two months are preparing to board the first repatriation flight from London to Mumbai on Saturday.

The flight marks the first of seven Air India routes organised by the Indian government from London’s Heathrow Airport to six Indian cities over the next week – Mumbai (Saturday and Tuesday), Bengaluru (Sunday), Hyderabad (Monday), Ahmedabad (Wednesday), Chennai (Thursday) and New Delhi (Friday) – in the first phase of the UK-India segment of the ‘Operation Vande Bharat- A homecoming’.

“This is the biggest-ever repatriation operation anywhere in the world at any time. Flights will be scheduled until the last Indian has been flown back home, no one will be left behind,” said Kuldeep Shekhawat, the President of the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) diaspora group who is helping with the coordination efforts.

“The flight schedule in subsequent phases from the UK will depend on demand and if there are enough passengers, direct flights will be organised to other Indian cities which have an international airport,” he said.

The first Air India flight will arrive at London’s Heathrow Airport with double the required crew members on board, half of whom will stay behind for further schedules.

Passengers will be tested for temperature, one of the symptoms of COVID-19, before boarding and only those showing no symptoms would be able to make the journey.

“I am a first-year student in the UK so my whole family was really worried back in India. As soon as I got the email from the High Commission, I told my dad who was speechless. I am delighted to be going back,” said Vedant Anil Sharma, International Business Management student at Royal Agricultural University in south-west England, who is on the first flight back to Mumbai on Saturday.

Sharma is among thousands of Indian students desperate to go back to their loved ones in India and has been supported through the lockdown by student groups such as the National Indian Students and Alumni Union (NISAU).

“We are supporting the High Commission in helping to prioritise the most vulnerable cases,” said NISAU UK Chair Sanam Arora.

“We are concerned that many students have fallen through the safety net in Britain; as many of them have lost their jobs and consequently have been struggling with living expenses so for them while we are working with community organisations to offer them support, a more sustainable and institutional response has been sought by us,” she said.

The group has also been flagged concerns from some students already facing financial constraints over the affordability of tickets on the non-commercial special flights, which have a flat rate for all cities with an Economy class ticket priced at 539 pounds, Business class at 1,493 pounds and First Class at 3,339 pounds.

While social distancing will not be imposed inflight, passengers will have access to personal protective gear such as masks and gloves.

On landing in India, they will have a choice of venues organised by respective state governments for their 14-day quarantine period – including a range of hotels on offer based on individual affordability.

The schedule is being coordinated by the Indian High Commission in London, with payments made directly to Air India by confirmed passengers. The first set of seven flights to India will prioritise Indian passport holders on vulnerability and health grounds.

The Indian High Commission advisory said, “Stranded Indian nationals are being contacted by Air India. Kindly complete booking formalities quickly otherwise seats will be offered to the next stranded Indian in the waiting list. Only Indian passport holders can travel.”

“People calling from Air India will be identifiable by three steps. All shortlisted passengers will get emails from the High Commission explaining these steps,” it added.

The Air India flights landing at London Heathrow will also be bringing back some expatriates and UK visa holders wanting to fly back to the UK.

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