Tuesday 16 June 2020 2:46 AM UTC
Sanjay Menon from Emvigo Technologies was on a brief visit to the UK when international lockdown was put in place following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. After much struggle with getting his documents cleared through the High Commission of India and Air India Sanjay secured a seat through the repatriation flight to Kochi in May. Sanjay had a whole story to say following his efforts which led to him securing a ticket and finally until the day he finished his quarantine in Kerala.
Following what he learnt through the whole process in what was involved he continued to run the Malayalees Stranded in UK Whatsapp group alongwith Anoop Sasidharan. Sanjay’s blog continues to be very relevant for any traveller who is taking one of the repatriation flights on June 18, 24 and 30 and also the experience one goes through such a journey.
This post is for the benefit for all people stuck outside India and wants to travel back. I was stuck in UK and luckily was able to travel back in the first repatriation flight from London to Cochin on the 19th of May,2020.
Topic(T)1 — How to register?
1. The High Commission of India (HCI) had released a link to register in April. I had been following the HCI on Facebook and as soon as they had released the link i had registered with them. I had also registered in the Norka website as well from Kerala Government.
2. This is the link to register — Registration with the High Commission of India
You wont get any acknowledgement back from HCI so you are really shooting in the dark and hoping the registration has gone through.
3. I received another email from the HCI asking me to add few further fields. Please note that i had conveyed my current situation to them descriptively to ensure my case was considered.
For the benefit of all these were the things i had mentioned –
a. There was a Corona death opposite to my house in London.
b. My landlord is a key worker and still goes to work which puts me at risk. Also i had 2 more flatmates from Italy as well.
c. My visa was expiring on May 15th (now expired).
d. I did not have insurance coverage with the NHS in case something happens.
A few days after this around 1st week of May we got to know that repatriation flights are starting on 7th of May. While following the messages on Facebook i saw that a person named Anoop had started a Whatsapp group for “Malayalees stranded in UK” and i joined the same seeing his posts on Facebook.
Post this i interacted with Anoop and many other members here personally and over the group and we tried to share as much information that we could gather from HCI, Government, Airline officials etc to help all of us with the potential travel. We also helped the elderly citizens and pregnant ladies with all possible support for a smoother travel. I will refer to this group and few of the members in this post.
T2 — Getting on the list.
1. This was a real lottery and we are not sure what exactly are the norms. Anyways I received an email from the HCI that i was shortlisted. Following this many amongst us got follow up calls from HCI directly which i did not receive. Many even got the call multiple times. This made me nervous for sure as i did not receive any calls.
2. Following this on 17th Sunday morning i received an call directly from Air India Birmingham office stating i was shortlisted for the flight and asked for my payment details. I asked them to email me a link to complete payment but i was asked to provide my card details directly.
a. Before i gave my card details i verified if the number was correct. HCI in their email had given us a list of phone numbers from which we can expect calls from Air India. The number was from the list. Beware of scam and ensure you make all necessary checks before sharing details.
b. I checked with them for my passport number and my email id and once they confirmed the same i gave my card details. I was lucky enough to receive my ticket while i was on the call with Air India which was not the case for many as i will explain below.
3. The initial emails from HCI had our ticket prices at GBP 539. When Air India called us we were told its GBP 596. I informed them of the same and after a few hours all of us received emails from Air India confirming this change in ticket price which was a surprise for many.
4. I was not informed by the lady who had called me to complete my booking that we were allowed to carry only one piece of hand luggage. I later came to know as i will explain below which caused a lot of grief.
5. Many people received calls from Air India and made payments but did not receive the tickets. If something similar happens please go to the airport directly.
6. Unfortunately many people got calls from HCI and then emails that Air India would contact them but nothing happened after that which was a shame. So please understand that until you have the ticket in hand there is no guarantee that you are on the flight.
T3 — The prep before D Day
1. After reading various blogs and posts i got to prepping for my travel. As per my ticket i ensured i had only 2 pieces of check in luggage which was not exceeding 46 kgs and i had an hand luggage which weighed 5/6 kgs and my laptop bag. This is as per information on the ticket that our baggage allowance was 23 kgs x 2 pieces plus 8 kgs hand luggage plus a laptop bag.
2. I knew we will have only limited food so i bought couple of sandwiches so that i have additional food. Also i had 5 pairs of rubber gloves, 5 masks and a hand sanitizer so that i could keep changing my gloves. Thanks to my friend Murali i was able to procure all of this before my travel.
3. I am usually an E Ticket person but this time i didn’t want last minute surprises and took a printout of my ticket and the pass which HCI had mailed us.
T4 — The D Day
1. The flight was scheduled for 1.15 pm but i wanted to get there earlier as i knew there would be a big queue plus wanted to help senior citizens and pregnant ladies who were travelling alone.
I arrived at the airport a little after 9.40 am thanks to my friend Rishi Renjth, who dropped me at the airport.
2.The flight was from Terminal 2. I was informed by the members of our Whatsapp group that we had to start from Level 0. We got into the line around 9.45 am . It was quite a big line and after a while you reach the lift which takes you to level 5. Here there are officials who confirms your ticket and also if you have paid and not received the tickets you can check with them for the same.
3. Once inside the terminal we were directed to a smaller queue which is controlled by a staff and we are then sent in small numbers to join the Air India line. This is when we had the next surprise when we had Air India officials who started selling business class tickets for a cheaper rate (Additional GBP 596) and then rudely informed us that only 1 hand baggage is allowed and we had to pay GBP 140 additional for the bag.
4. I was shocked/surprised and walked on towards the counter because i was convinced this cannot be the case as i was not informed. . This was a slightly bigger line and while waiting an Air India staff came and very rudely told us we wont be allowed on the airline for carrying a laptop bag plus additional bag.
Now i understand this is not a commercial airline and its an repatriation flight. We are all gracious and thank all the staff who helped us get across the line but we also expect a little more compassion rather than being shouted on like school kids.
5. What followed was a series of exchanges between me and few others vs this lady. We calmly told her that this was not in the ticket and this was not informed to us. She said Air India customer care would have informed this to us which did not happen.
This lady and few other staff kept on repeating that we would be not allowed to board and that security is not allowing 2 hand bags and that there is no space in the flight etc. In fact many of the people who were around me at that time was not informed of the same but her attitude was that she does not need to know that and that if we need to carry additional bag it would cost us GBP 140 (around INR 12000).
When asked how come she says there is no space in the aircraft but by paying additionally GBP 140 magically space appears she responded with a taunt that “Do you think you can get on the flight by arguing with us?”. She called the HCI staff there for support and when he actually supported me she dismissed him saying he is just HCI staff and he does not know and that they are Air India staff.
6. I was carrying my work laptop and my hand luggage had 2 pairs of shoes and a floater. There was no way i was going to fit my stuff inside so i was prepared to be taken advantage by Air India and pay additional as i had no other options but i saw many people including students scrambling to get stuff together.
A gentleman from Wayanad who i incidentally ended up sitting with, told me there is no point arguing with the lady and graciously offered to check in my baggage as he had only one bag and thereby diffused the situation. I must also be fair and point out that the same Air India lady heard this and said that its fine and he can check in for me.
After showing the contents of my hand luggage to him and giving my business card, he accepted my bag and checked this in. After getting my tickets i did go to meet her to apologise as i did not want to leave LHR on a bitter note. I also wanted to point out that this was a flaw from Air India side which is inconveniencing many passengers and needs improvement.
A simple statement by Air India or HCI social media handles would have ensured this confusion was not there. She really did not pay me any attention but because she allowed me to check in my baggage via another passenger am not revealing her name or anything else.
I really wish she and other staff were more courteous and friendly with passengers, many who are already tensed with everything going on.
7. To ensure everybody is clear
a. Total 46 kgs check in luggage. 23 kgs x 2 pieces.
b. Hand Luggage — Total 1 piece. ONLY 1 piece allowed. Additional charge for more pieces of hang luggage.
8.After this we did our security screenings which was uneventful except for the fact that they are more strict and jackets, belts, shoes, handkerchiefs — everything basically goes on the tray.
9. Once this was done we started walking towards B46 which was our gate. Elderly citizens and Pregnant ladies please note there are free buggy services which you can utilise. This is just after security and before we start the 15 min walk towards B side gates.
As we had few elderly parents with me, me and Rashid (from our whatsapp group) ensured their boarding cards were given to the lady manning this and they were seated and we thought of walking towards the gate so that we are there by the time the other elderly folks with us get to the gate.
10. After the long walk to the gate, one thing we noticed were the serpentine queues without following social distancing for the thermal test. Another thing was that many people were thirsty but either they did not carry a bottle which they can refill from the water fountain or they had to pay GBP 2 from the vending machines.
Please note both these options only give COLD WATER which was an issue for some of the elderly. Its better to carry an empty bottle so that you can complete security checks without the hassle of carrying liquid and then proceed to refill them. We helped to buy bottles for many people here as by the time you get there you are drained.
11. The flight was delayed because as expected the thermal scanning and all procedures took time. It was initially mentioned that flight departure was at 1.50 pm but we took off closer to 3.30 pm if am not wrong. A reason that was mentioned was that Bombay Airport opens only at 4 so better to wait in London than Mumbai.
If that was the case why couldn’t Air India slot the flight at say 3 or 3.30 pm. This would have give time for people outside London to travel from all over UK because 2 people i know from the Whatsapp group arrived at the airport the previous night and stayed at the airport due to the distance to London Heathrow.
Anyways after thermal temperature check where they record all our temperatures, we need to wait until boarding starts. Again as by usual practice people crowd to get in. Please wait as your seats are confirmed and board only when the queue has sufficiently reduced.
T5 — The Flight!
1.Once we boarded the flight we were given a blue bag with 2 snack boxes and 2 bottles of water. We were informed we can ask for more water not food. Request everyone to carry additional sandwiches/biscuits/chocolates etc , especially if you are diabetic or just generally hungry like me 😉 This would be already kept in our place.
In addition they provide couple of face mask and an face shield (that thing like the helmet) which is useful, please wear the same. Please note Air India did not provide gloves. I had carried 5 pairs for the flight and now i feel i should have carried more.
The rubber gloves i carried gets in our way with the stuff we do usually and we end up tearing them. Example while pointing the Air condition vent towards you the glove get stuck and while pulling it out there are chances of tearing them. So i would advise you to carry 10 pairs at least so that you can keep disposing them.
2. The rest of the journey was quite uneventful and comfortable. The entertainment system does not work so download movies on your phone/Netflix/prime etc for entertainment.
3. We were on a LHR-COK/Vijayawada flight where Vijayawada was the feeder. This meant we stopped at Bombay for a small duration and passengers got down for Vijayawada and we proceeded to Cochin. We arrived in Mumbai around 4.20 am. Please note no further snacks would be provided.
4. We arrived in Cochin at 7.15 am. 30 min delayed as per schedule.
5. Please note the flight is packed i.e middle seats are not left free. I was lucky that the guy in the middle went and sat somewhere else with a friend. This was because some elderly people were given business class upgrades, which left 1 or 2 seats empty.
T6 — The last leg
1. In Cochin, we exited the air craft 30 passengers at a time to avoid queuing up. We were given forms in London which we had to fill. We did the thermal monitoring first after we submitted the forms and if our temperatures are normal, we can proceed towards immigration and then towards hand baggage scan (as usual) and then take the escalator/elevator to the baggage section.
2. The duty free is all shut 🙁 so if you want to buy alcohol or chocolates do that before you get to Heathrow because everything is shut there as well.
3. After we collected our baggage which was wet btw, we move towards the health service desk which is just after customs where we were asked where we need to go and we are asked to fill another form.
Now this part is something which keeps changing as per State and Central Government decisions. For us on 20th May 2020, all of us were instructed to hop on the KSRTC bus except pregnant ladies, elderly above the age of 75, families with small children and the last category — if you can prove you are not well beyond question. the last category is quite tough as you need extensive proof.
I had couple of passengers (senior citizens above 60+) with me who had few documents but that was not enough to convince them and they were asked to get on the ksrtc bus as well. There are buses for all districts from the airport and we need to get on the bus.
We were give a small food packet before we got on which had biscuits, fruit bun and a sweet bun along with a bottle of water. The buses wait for all passengers to arrive before they start so no points rushing to get on the bus.
4. From here this would be my experience alone as i was travelling to Cochin and the group had split up. We were taken to XIMS College in Kalamassery and we waited for our turn.
The initial set of people were taken to the boys hostel. Our bus was taken to the girls hostel. There we need to register with the health officer and if it is government quarantine you would be allotted your room.
5. As am an entrepreneur who runs a small software dev firm (Home — Emvigo Technologies) i opted for paid quarantine as i needed WiFi and desk facilities to work the next 14 days. I was asked to wait as they will call for the cab themselves. These are special cabs with the drive isolated. We need to pay for this.
6. To be honest most of us expected a health desk in the airport or the quarantine centre where there is a list of paid quarantine centres and we can chose. There was nothing like that. Luckily through Anoops brother (from the whatsapp group) i was already in touch with a hotel in Cochin and i informed the officials of the same and they arranged the taxi.
7. Things to note is that as of now 14 days quarantine is a must. No PCR test was done, only thermal temperature check was done at CIAL. Earlier when it was 7 days institutional and 7 days home quarantine PCR tests were done before we were sent back home. Mr Babu, Health Inspector/Officer at XIMS was gracious enough to explain this to me in detail. This is a fluid situation so this needs to be monitored whenever others travel.
8. I finally arrived at my hotel around 3 pm IST, a whole 25–26 hours since i stood in line at Heathrow. I was lucky am from Cochin. I cannot think of the elderly who had to travel in KSRTC all the way to Kannur and Kasargod. I was told they got home extremely late in the night. So if you want to travel please be prepared for this, else you are better off where you are.
9. Received 3 calls today from Commissioners office (this was an hour after we landed in Cochin) and 2 from corona related health officers who checked up on me and noted down where am staying etc. I believe this is going to be an daily exercise from now on.
I have tried to be as descriptive as possible. If you need more information please feel to reach out to me.
I want to end by saying that its safe to travel and government and airlines have taken all necessary precautions. Am sure many people are nervous about travelling and i hope this bit of information helps them !
I arrived 3.5 weeks before and i spent 2 weeks in quarantine.
I opted for a paid quarantine as i need proper work space and i opted for Dunes Hotel in M.G Road Cochin. I finally got home after 2 weeks of Quarantine and i was tested for Covid-19 on the 4th day by health officials who came to the hotel. I was tested negative which was good 🙂
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