india covid Ahmedabad nasal swab
Indian expats are not just hit with delays if they test positive at India's airports. Airlines in the country are not doing much on reimbursements. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: When Dubai-based expat, Nikita Manoj (name changed), visited her hometown in Kerala last month, she expected things the travel part to go smoothly considering that flights between the two countries are running normally.

Within days of being in Kerala, where the latest COVID-19 variant is running rampant, Nikita got infected and was bedridden for a few days. “But two days before my flight back, I took a PCR test and was delighted to see I was negative,” she said, assuming that all things were back to normal.

When she reached the Kochi airport, she tested positive in the pre-departure test and was immediately ushered off to a separate room for COVID-19 positive passengers. “After being given a PPE kit to wear, I was made to wait for 45 minutes and during that time I did not receive any kind of service or updates,” Nikita added.

Nikita, who had booked her ticket with one of India’s leading low-cost airlines, observed that passengers that had booked with UAE-based airlines were receiving better service, with dedicated staff tending to their needs. “The airline I was on later denied my claim to a refund and I had to book a brand new ticket a few weeks down the line,” she said.

Similar scenes are playing out at airports across India. While airlines provide refunds or free date changes for passengers who test positive in tests taken a day or two before departure, there is no provision for those who are detected with COVID-19 at the airport. “If you test positive in an RT-PCR test at the airport, that is completely the passenger’s responsibility,” said Suraj Ramesh from Al Badie Travel Agency. “Nothing from the airline is free, but they have some insurance policies wherein you can submit some documents and collect cancellation fees.

“That is related to you and the insurance company and does not involve the airline,” said Ramesh. “Passengers get the result, maybe, three hours before departure, so there is actually no window for the airline to look at if someone turns positive.”

There are several companies offering India-UAE COVID-19 travel insurance. A Bengaluru-based insurer is offering a $50,000 UAE travel insurance plan from India for 7 days – the plan starts at just over Rs200 rupees (Dh10) per head.

High cost burden

The growing uncertainty comes as passengers are already shelling out thousands of rupees for a rapid PCR test, a mandatory requirement for those traveling from India to the Gulf. Some of India’s largest airports are charging over Rs3,000 for a single test and that has irked travellers. The cost is much higher in airports run by private companies. A Rapid PCR test at Delhi airport costs around Rs3,500 now – this is after a 10 per cent reduction. Meanwhile, Kozhikode airport, run by the Airports Authority of India (AAI), slashed its rate to Rs1,580 from Rs2,400.

Meanwhile, the UAE-India air route – among the world’s busiest – is coming back in a big way after seeing a huge dip in traffic due to restrictions last year. “The seat capacity between UAE and India has reached almost 90 per cent of the pre-Covid level,” said Vivek Keerthy, analyst at CAPA India. “Prior to India’s third wave, the traffic between India and UAE reached about 70 per cent of pre-Covid levels.

“While the capacity and traffic recovery varies immensely by routes and destinations, repatriation flights have contributed to the opening of new routes.”

New sectors between UAE and India include Amritsar–Abu Dhabi, Amritsar-Sharjah, Delhi-Ras Al Khaimah, Indore-Dubai, Mangalore–Sharjah, Lucknow–Abu Dhabi and Srinagar- Sharjah.

Bookings dropped recently as India grapples with rising cases, but the relaxation of certain travel norms is expected to bring back traffic. Mumbai, which relies heavily on traffic from Dubai, dropped a seven-day quarantine requirement it had imposed on passengers flying in from the UAE. India, which added 149,394 new COVID cases on Friday, had roughly had 42 million cases since the outbreak began in 2020.