As the lockdown brought the news of the shutdown on international flights, I knew I was stuck in a bad situation. My US visa had expired post my graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in May, and I was on the 60-days grace period that is normally allotted after the date of expiry. The US government had issued provisions for extension of the F1 student visa under COVID-19 measures, but on a case-by-case basis. Job opportunities were, and still are, at an all time low.
I had only one hope – to get on an evacuation flight under Vande Bharat Mission that the Indian government had made operational from the first week of May.
I had a one-way economy ticket from Chicago to New Delhi with Air India, scheduled on May 19. My fare, amounting to $586.20 (Rs 41,790), was not refunded, even after regular flights were cancelled.
Meanwhile, I had registered with the Indian embassy and was waiting for their email, which would typically have the flight details and payment link of the flight I would be selected to take.
A few days later, Air India suddenly opened its flights to all. No registration with the embassy was required anymore. The economy fares for one-way tickets were an astonishing $1,361.40 (Rs 1,03,589). As soon as bookings opened, I asked Air India to adjust my previous flight fare of $586.20 with the evacuation ticket. The representatives promised to call me within the next six hours once my booking from Chicago to New Delhi was confirmed.
They did not.
When I reached out, they said that I had missed their call (there were no missed calls on my phone) and had given my spot to somebody else. It was the most ridiculous excuse I had heard since all they had to do was book me a flight ticket and mail it to me.
All the economy seats were now full, and the only option left for me was to buy a business class ticket, priced at $3,405.11 (Rs 2,59,810). The money was deducted from my account even though there was a system error and a failed transaction.
I received no ticket, and even after a fusillade of emails for a few days, I neither had a refund nor a reply. My family income was not enough to afford this. We had to take a loan from friends to pay the fare. As a last resort, I informed them that I had disputed the transaction with my US bank.
The next day, the amount was refunded to my account. They had been reading my emails for ten days but did not care enough to address the problem with a response.
Finally, I bought an economy ticket from New York (flights from Chicago were now full) to New Delhi for June 25. As part of our PPE kit, we received five to six sachets of hand sanitisers, a disposable mask and a face shield. Flimsy white jackets were given only to people sitting in the aisle seats of the middle row.
Once we were on board, the attendants kept announcing periodically that we had to make do for the next 14 hours with the little snacks and two sandwiches sealed in a packet they had put on our seats. Along with that were only two pet bottles of drinking water. If that did not suffice for our long flight, they were not responsible (of course).
Another sleepless night was waiting for me as children on the flight kept wailing from hunger and thirst. With that was the fear of being infected in a jam-packed flight.
Anyway, at least I was headed home.
The situation got even worse when the flight landed. We were allotted group numbers for an organised exit from the airport. The jawans stationed to oversee this operation kept misguiding group members. Those who got lost, especially senior citizens, were greeted with expletives. After a two-hour long wait without refreshments, we were escorted to a makeshift office for “medical testing”.
The office was chock full of evacuees and their luggage trollies. Only our temperatures were checked.
We then had to choose from a list of five-star hotels and pay for a seven-day long quarantine period to be spent over there. Some people were allowed home-quarantine, especially those with babies. Our passports were taken and handed over to some men. A bus dropped us off at the hotel and the passports were deposited at the reception, and were to be held until the day we were scheduled for release.
I had chosen to stay at The Grand. It was not technically a choice since all the hotels were equally priced at Rs 4,500 per day (excluding taxes) for single rooms. The double rooms were costlier. The hotel was severely understaffed and the quality of food was not great. There were close to 200 people quarantining there at a time in individual rooms. The money also had to be paid in full on the first day before you could go to your room. Luckily, one man at the reception had been considerate and allowed my family time until my release to slowly transfer the money online.
For all the exorbitant fares charged and self-patting tweets from the aviation minister, there were no COVID-19 tests (unless you count temperature and pressure checks – which do not work to detect asymptomatic patients), extremely rude staff at the Delhi airport and terrible Air India customer service, and hardly any social distancing measures followed anywhere – on or off the flights.
Yet, being back safe and sound should be enough, no? So…Jai Hind!
Pujarinee Mitra is a resident of Salt Lake, Kolkata.
Featured image credit: PTI