Travel bans and cancelled flights: Stranded during a pandemic
Ground Report

Travel bans and cancelled flights: Stranded during a pandemic

While the aviation sector is losing money due to the pandemic, flight cancellations are worse for travellers.

By Sashikala VP

Published on :

Nyugen Thi Hue, a Vietnamese citizen, had made her way to India on March 10 to attend a wedding, with her return flight booked for March 16.

On March 14, she was informed that her flight from Kolkata had been cancelled, with no further information. "It ruined my plans for the next couple of days. All I could do was try to get myself on a flight back home. I wanted to get a direct flight from Kolkata, as more stopovers meant putting myself to more risk".

Hue had earlier flown from Guwahati, Assam — where she had attended her colleague's wedding — to Kolkata. "I could not find any direct flight. They were all cancelled. I would have to go to Bangkok or Malaysia first, so finally, that's what I did. My parents found me a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and then to Ho Chin Minh City on March 17."

But she was still anxious, wondering if she would be able to leave Malaysia. "When I arrived in Kolkata, I saw the news which said Malaysia would shut down on March 18. That's like half a day for me. I was worried I would be stuck there."

That didn't happen, and she was able to return to Vietnam. "Before boarding at Kuala Lumpur, I was given a form to fill out about my travel details; which country I had been to, what I did, my health situation, if I had a cough, temperature, things like that. When I arrived at Ho Chi Minh, they did a health check. As I was okay, the authorities asked me to self-quarantine for 14 days at home. So now I'm at home and can't go anywhere," she tells us over the phone.

"My co-worker who was getting married invited the entire company, but only I could go. I was there for a few days, and then I travelled within Assam for a bit. I had a good trip. I had planned to visit many other places, but because of this, I had to sit and figure out what I needed to be doing."

As an event manager for an outdoor training company, the pandemic means Hue will not be able to go to work since operations have been shut for at least three months.

CoVID-19 has affected the aviation sector massively. India's low-cost carrier Indigo has cancelled several flights. Such is the current situation that its head of communications, Sakshi Batra, says sharing the number of flights cancelled would not be feasible as "our numbers keep changing".

While the aviation sector is losing money, cancellations are much worse for travellers. Most of them panic, especially tourists like Hue who are eager to return home but are now stranded.

One reason is travel restrictions on entry of citizens of various countries. Another is the cancellation of flights due to low passenger load.

Indigo experienced a modest impact from coronavirus in January-February. In March, the cancellation spree began spreading like the virus.

Foreigners grounded

Patriot called various embassies to find out more about the plight of its stranded citizens. The most interesting response was from the Chinese embassy. On calling the embassy's press division, we were told they were doing everything for Chinese citizens in India to return home, and that it was the Indian government who was "making us prisoners". On being asked to elaborate, they said, "Ask your government," and slammed the phone down.

Iran's embassy in India says many of its citizens were stuck in India owing to the cancellations of flights. The country was able to facilitate the evacuation of its citizens on March 18.

A statement on March 14 said many of Iran's citizens were forced to stop in various cities in India due to cancellations. Iranian officials maintained they were hopeful special permits would soon be issued and special flights which would transport its citizens from India to Iran.

Patriot contacted embassies of several countries but was not given enough information on the situation of its citizens in India.

The consular sector of the High Commission of Malaysia did say that none of its citizens had been impacted by restrictions or the travel ban. People like Hue looked for information themselves and worked out a solution.

The Swedish embassy said no citizens were stuck in the country, with senior press advisor, Saloni Zaveri-Ahluwalia, saying that those who needed to leave managed to do so without their help.

The spokesperson of the Embassy of Israel, Avigail Spira, said they did not have accurate numbers of people stuck. "There are still meant to be two flights a week via Air India, and there are other options for flying back. So those who wish to go home are likely to be able to sooner or later."

Air India has cancelled several flights between March 16 and April 30 to destinations like Kathmandu, Dubai, Dammam, Riyadh, Jeddah, Doha and Muscat from cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Air India had already cancelled flights to Madrid, Paris, Frankfurt, Tel Aviv, Rome, Milan, Incheon, Kuwait and Colombo from New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata until April 30. Some of the domestic sector flights of the national carrier have also been cancelled.

Indigo cancelled its flights to Doha and in a statement on March 5, it said that owing to the suspension of visas for all foreigners except for diplomatic passport holders, "IndiGo will be cancelling some of its flights to Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi w.e.f. March 17, 2020, until the travel restrictions are lifted."

With inputs from Shaunak Ghosh.

This story was first published in The Patriot.