First Air India repatriation flight to take off from US with 224 Indians

Lalit K Jha

Washington, May 9 (PTI) Around 224 Indians stranded in the US due to the coronavirus-induced lockdown are preparing to board the first repatriation flight from San Francisco to Mumbai and Hyderabad on Saturday.

In the first phase of the US-India segment of the 'Operation Vande Bharat- A homecoming', flights have been planned from San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Washington DC to New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Bengaluru.

As many as 1,961 Indians are likely to be repatriated through seven flights from the four cities in the first phase, officials said.

More than 24,000 Indians stranded in the US have expressed their interest in travelling back home abroad the special Air India flights.

The first of the series of special Air India flight carrying 224 Indian nationals is scheduled to fly from San Francisco on Saturday night.

Over the next one week, as many as 1,961 Indians are likely to be repatriated through seven flights from four different cities.

According to Indian Embassy officials, priority is being given to those Indian nationals who were laid off from work, have medical emergencies or visa expiry issue, pregnant women, senior citizens, death in the family and students.

The tickets in the first phase are being decided through an electronic random selection method.

So far, the largest number of repatriation registration (6,600) has been from the New York Consulate area, followed by San Francisco (5,600), Chicago (3,500), Houston (3,300), Atlanta (2,500) and the Indian Embassy in Washington DC (2,300).

Given the large number of registrations, officials are also gearing up for the second phase of the evacuation.

“We are also ready for another week (of flights). The number (of those who have registered for repatriation) are staggering,” a senior Indian Embassy official said, hours before the departure of the flight from San Francisco.

The destination Indian cities might change in the second phase, officials said, adding that the details of the second phase of the 'Vande Bharat' mission is likely to be announced next week.

Officials said in the next phase, other categories like people of Indian origin and other nationalities might also be considered.

US has one of the largest numbers of Indian nationals in the western world. The Indian population in the US is estimated to be around one million, including over 200,000 students, 600,000 Green Card holders, 155,000 on H-1B visas and thousands of on tourist and business visas.

The last of the series of the special Air India flight in the first phase is scheduled to fly from Chicago on May 15 to Delhi and Hyderabad.

Other flights are on May 10 from Newark to Mumbai and Ahmedabad; May 11 from Chicago to Mumbai and Chennai; May 12 from Washington DC to Delhi and Hyderabad; May 13 from San Francisco to Delhi and Bengaluru; and on May 14 from Newark to Delhi and Hyderabad.

'The cost of travel from designated airport in the USA to the designated airport in India will be borne by the passengers,' the Indian Embassy said in a travel advisory this week.

The embassy and consulates will share the details of passengers identified with Air India Offices that will contact them directly regarding booking of tickets and mode of payment.

The pre-paid price for economy class ticket on these repatriation flights from the US costs USD 1,362 and that for Business Class is USD 3,722 and USD 5,612 for First Class passengers.

External Affairs Ministry and Ministry of Home Affairs have issued detailed guidelines for passengers and protocol to be followed during the flight and immediately after their arrival in India.

'All passengers will be required to undergo medical screening before boarding the flight and only asymptomatic passengers will be allowed to travel. All passengers on arrival in India will be medically screened and would have to download and register on Arogya Setu app,' the embassy said.

'All passengers will need to undergo a 14-day mandatory quarantine on arrival in India in institutional quarantine facilities on payment basis as per the protocols framed by Government of India. COVID test would be done after 14 days and further action would be taken according to applicable health protocols,' it said.

The passengers are will also be required to sign an undertaking, which will be collected from them at the airport before boarding the flight.

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, India is conducting 'Vande Bharat' Mission -- its biggest ever repatriation exercise -- to bring back stranded Indians from abroad, including from the US, the UAE and the UK.

Nearly 15,000 Indians are expected to return on special Air India flights from 12 countries in the coming days. PTI LKJ SCY SCY