UPDATE (2.48 pm: Indians stranded abroad will be charged for flights bringing them home, according to Hardeep Puri, India's Civil Aviation Minister. Puri also serves as Minister of State (independent charge) of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.
Dubai: Tickets for repatriation flights from UAE to India, which start on May 7, could range between Dh700 to Dh750. This fare is possible as India's state-sponsored airline will not maintain social distancing on board the flight and have no empty seats. Earlier, there were reports that airlines may charge almost Dh1,900 for a one-way repatriation flight. This was based on calculations that social distancing norms would be adhered to.
Nearly 200,000 Indians in the UAE have registered to return home.
Death toll: 1,568
Most affected state: Maharashtra (>14,500 cases, 583 deaths) as of Tuesday
A majority of those taking these flights have either lost their jobs or are sending back their families because of uncertainty on the work front.
One airline can carry only limited passengers - therefore, multiple airlines are likely to get the approval to operate repatriation flights
Sources said that officials in Indian diplomatic missions have already initiated calls to some expats, telling them about likely fares and enquiring about their willingness to travel.
Although many believed repatriation would be government-sponsored, Indian authorities have clarified that customers would have to pay for their tickets themselves. Those who thought they were entitled to free repatriation might back out of travel plans for now.
Fact of life
With Air India Express doing away with social distancing norms, it will carry the maximum number of passengers on each of these flights.
“One airline can carry only limited passengers - therefore, multiple airlines are likely to get the approval to operate repatriation flights,” said Jamal Abdulnazar, CEO of Cozmo Travel. “Also, airports will have to maintain safe distance for passengers to queue up at immigration and security counters.
“Therefore, it is recommended that multiple carriers fly into multiple Indian airports for repatriation to be expedited.”
The Indian authorities, so far, have not taken the easy decision to get its private domestic airlines into the rescue act. Gulf News tried speaking to the leading players, but they declined to provide any official statements. So far, only Air India, the national carrier, has been commissioned to operate these flights.
UAE carriers ready to help out
UAE’s Emirates airline, Etihad, flydubai and Air Arabia are likely to also operate repatriation flights to India after Air India implements the first phase of services.
“We are fully supporting governments and authorities across the flydubai network with their repatriation efforts, helping them to make arrangements for their citizens to return home,” said a flydubai spokesperson.
“We will announce repatriation flights as and when they are confirmed. Recognising this is an evolving situation whilst the flight restrictions remain in place.”
An AirArabia spokesperson said the airline is ready to operate repatriation flights when the government tells them to.
Travel agencies likely to benefit
Apart from operating non-scheduled commercial flights, the Indian government is also deploying naval ships to bring expat Indians back. Sources claim the ships are to ferry passengers who cannot afford the repatriation airfares.
Even then, considering the sheer numbers who will want to get on the flights, travel agencies are likely to see a surge in bookings since airline websites alone may not cope with the surge in demand within such a short span.
Learn from Gulf governments
On instances when they carried out their own repatriation flights, some GCC governments paid for the tickets to fly in their citizens. Those citizens, who did not have ready funds, could approach their diplomatic missions and aid was given on a case-to-case basis.
Should Indians wait for normal services to resume?
Industry sources say that those Indians wanting to fly back but cannot afford the flights should wait for full services to resume once the COVID-19 pandemic settles.
But can those who have lost their jobs or have suffered steep salary cuts, stay on without adding to their costs? And is there any guarantee that when normal flight services resume, ticket prices will be lower than on these repatriation trips?
Normal travel is expected to pick up only after the repatriation exercise to several countries is completed. UAE-based travel agencies are not seeing any bookings for summer, which is traditionally the peak holiday season.
“Majority want to stay put unless full confidence is restored,” said Abdulnazar. “I expect full normality to be restored not until March 2021.
“People have also taken a hit to their income. Without disposable income, you will curtail your trave,.” he added.
What constitutes normality?
Airfares are expected to remain high, given the need to keep the middle seats empty to maintain safe distance onboard.
We expect holiday travel to resume by October or November - but, the travel sentiment will not go back to pre-COVID-19 levels anytime soon
“We expect holiday travel to resume by October or November - but, the travel sentiment will not go back to pre-COVID-19 levels anytime soon,” said Manvendra Roy, vice-president – Commercial at holidayme, an online travel agency. “The need to keep the middle seat vacant will add 30-40 per cent pricing pressure per seat from an airline perspective.
“This will make holidays more expensive.”
As for business travel, it will take some time to recover. Corporate staff members are now used to getting work done via conference calls. “Companies will also curtail their travel expenditure since their income has taken a hit,” said Abdulnazar.