Being a travel agent, travelling has been a way of life for me. However, travelling by air amidst COVID-19 was as different as it can get. By Bhakti Taunk
It’s nearly midnight of May 25, 2020. I’m still scrambling to complete my packing. There are clothes, shoes, masks, gloves and sanitisers scattered everywhere. I’m at the edge of chaos, frantically trying to tick off every last item from my checklist. I have never prepped so much nor felt this anxious before taking a domestic flight. More so, since I am a travel agent by profession – Director at Eastern Travels Pvt. Ltd, a leading integrated travel solutions provider — travelling for me has always been a way of life. Only this time around, it was going to be different as I would be taking my first flight in the post-COVID world.
It’s only been a day since the skies opened for domestic flights after a long wait of two months, and I am scheduled to fly from Mumbai to Ranchi (via Delhi) and drive onwards to Jamshedpur with my family tomorrow. Needless to say, there are numerous thoughts and concerns racing through my mind, especially since I’m travelling with my parents, both senior citizens. I’m not sure what to expect with respect to crowds, social distancing, sanitation protocols, baggage handling, security, and in-flight experience. But, I’m ready to take a leap of faith!
We are all set to take our pre-booked transfer: two sanitised Innovas to the airport. It’s comforting to see that both the drivers are wearing masks and there is also a plastic shield placed between the driver and us. In order to minimise touchpoints, we have already prepaid for the transfer, including the toll for sea link.
We arrive at the airport, armed with N95 masks, gloves, and sanitisers. We refrain from using baggage trolleys. As we queue to enter the airport while maintaining social distance, the CISF personnel asks us to display the ‘green’ status on the Aarogya Setu app on our phones. We then undergo thermal screening, before being asked to scan the bar code on our boarding passes and display and verify our IDs through the plexiglass.
We enter the airport and proceed towards the self-check-in kiosk. We print our boarding passes and baggage tags for the first leg of our journey from Mumbai to Delhi in Vistara. As we queue for baggage drop, we are happy to see fewer crowds than expected. The fellow passengers who are there, too, are exhibiting restraint and following the social distancing markings on the floor. As an additional precautionary measure, there is even a shield placed between the airline staff at the counter and the passengers. Only alternate counters are occupied. I place my baggage on the belt and display my ID and boarding pass through the plexiglass. The Vistara counter staff asks me to take a picture of my baggage tag for reference. The entire process is contactless.
Post this, we head for security check – again, with barely any people and negligible lines. As per usual, we are asked to place our mobile, belt, laptop, power bank, etc. in sanitised trays. The difference, however, is that the CISF staff is now using an elongated body scanner to avoid close contact. Physical frisking and stamping are no longer taking place. As we walk towards our boarding gate, it is reassuring to see a few shops and food outlets open for business. However, every alternate seat near the boarding gate is sealed.
Boarding is announced as per zones, starting from the back of the aircraft to avoid overcrowding. We undergo a final thermal screening, scan our boarding passes, and are handed over a set of face masks and face shields, respectively. We are instructed to wear this compulsorily throughout the duration of the flight. Even the crew is armed with PPEs and face shields.
On entering the flight, we place our hand baggage in the overhead compartments and take our seats. There are no newspapers or magazines in the seat pocket, and all three seats are occupied. The crew requests everyone to remain seated at all times during the flight and not to move around unnecessarily. The use of lavatories is also limited.
The flight is comfortable, and I sleep through most of it. Post landing, the crew announces row numbers to ensure staggered deplaning. Sadly, it has taken a pandemic like COVID-19 to teach us patience. We deplane from the aircraft, and then board the buses to reach the arrival terminal. The bus, too, has markings to ensure social distancing. However, since there is only one bus for all the passengers, it becomes difficult to fall through with it. Once we collect our bags, we make our way to check-in for our next flight to Ranchi by Air Asia.
As a precautionary measure, we are not allowed to transfer internally to the Air Asia counter. Instead, we are asked to exit the airport and re-enter to check-in. While re-entering the airport, we meet a person deputed at the gate to disinfect passengers’ bags. At this point, all the checks and processes remain the same, barring one: we aren’t allowed to take a picture of the baggage tag. Instead, Air Asia messages it to us. While boarding, we are handed a fresh set of masks and face shields for the next leg of our journey.
We land in Ranchi. Before we can make our way to the baggage belt, we queue for thermal screening. We are asked to sanitise our forearms, as they stamp us for ‘HQ’ i.e. Home Quarantine. By now, we’re waiting to complete the last leg of our journey – the drive from Ranchi to Jamshedpur.
It’s nearly 10:00 pm, and we have almost made it home after a long day. As we enter Jamshedpur, we are stopped at a checkpoint where we are directed to first go to the centre and register ourselves as responsible citizens. So, we do that.
At the centre, we are shown a short film on COVID-19 and the precautions we should take, whilst we fill out two forms: one detailing the addresses of where we are coming from and where we will be staying; and the other, a declaration stating that we will abide by the rules of home quarantine. We are asked to download the SURAKHSHA COVID-19 app to enable them to track us during HQ.
It’s heartening to see all the positive initiatives implemented by the government, airport authorities and airlines to ensure the safety of travellers. As we finally reach home, our hearts are flooded with emotions of relief, joy, and gratitude. Overall, an extremely hassle-free and smooth experience.
- Prebook and prepay for a sanitised vehicle through a reliable vendor for your airport transfer.
- Ensure you wear the mandated protective gear (face mask) and carry a sanitiser. Gloves are not mandatory, but advisable. If you choose to wear gloves, please carry a few extra pairs as they tear quite easily.
- Download the Aarogya Setu app and take the self-test couple of times. To enter the airport, the status on your Aarogya Setu needs to be green.
- Complete the online health declaration form on the airline website and confirm your web check-in. No physical check-in will be done at the airport. Please ensure you have a confirmed web check-in and boarding passes on you (electronic or physical) to be allowed entry into the airport.
- Ensure you reach the airport at least two hours prior to the flight departure.
- Remember to take a picture of your baggage tag as it can help track the same. Airlines are no longer sticking these tags on the back of your boarding pass.
- You are allowed one piece weighing up to 20 kilograms (for checked-in baggage) and up to seven kilograms (for hand baggage). It can either be a handbag or laptop, but not both. Ensure your hand baggage is small enough to be stowed underneath the seat in front of you if required.
- Eat before you board the flight. It can be home-brought food or something you bought at one of the airport outlets. There is no meal service onboard, except water. I would advise you to carry your own bottle of water. Moreover, you need to wear your mask and shield at all times, so you are not permitted to eat inside the aircraft.
- It is advisable to use the washroom at the airport before boarding as the use of lavatories in the aircraft is limited.
- Ensure you check the guidelines for quarantine for the respective destination state governments before you plan your travel.