Dubai: The year 2020 saw many unexpected things happening in almost everyone’s life. For two Indian expats in the UAE, flying solo on a passenger flight was perhaps the most unexpected thing to happen in the year.
A 65-year-old man and a six-year-old girl, both hailing from the South Indian state of Kerala, were among those who flew all alone on two separate flights shortly after flight services from India to the UAE resumed following the COVID-19-imposed air travel suspensions. Another Indian expat, Thinley Youden Bhutia, had just one co-passenger for company when she arrived on the first flight from India to the UAE after services resumed on July 12.
No, they were not among those people who opted to fly alone on private jets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their "solo" flights happened rather by a fluke. They were not as delighted as they would have been had the flights not happened during the peak of the pandemic when passengers were more worried about the spread of coronavirus during air travel.
K. S. Sasikumar found his flight from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala to Sharjah on July 14 all for himself, while Diya Mariya took the solo flight from Chennai in Tamil Nadu to Abu Dhabi on July 25.
Sasikumar, who runs a trading company in Sharjah, had been to his hometown on March 12 and had planned to return on March 26. However, due to the lockdown and flight suspensions he got stuck in India like tens of thousands of other UAE residents.
As his ICA approval was rejected twice and expired once, Sasikumar had contemplated taking a private jet along with some other passengers to get back to the UAE. He even thought of taking the long route via the US after reports about some flying from India to the US to get back to Dubai came out. However, to his luck, he had a valid ICA approval when the UAE and India made the “air bubble agreement” to resume flights from India to the UAE on July 12.
“I had a return ticket with me. But, I couldn’t use that. I kept a watch on the earliest possible flight to return and managed to book on the Sharjah-Thiruvananthapuram flight on July 14. I had also managed to get a valid negative COVID-19 test report, which was announced just a few days before,” Sasikumar told Gulf News. “The flight landed with 151 passengers. I was surprised when I was told I was the only one to fly back. I guess no one else could make it due to the issues related to travel permissions and COVID tests.”
Sasikumar said he had initially feared that the flight would be cancelled. “Still I stayed back and waited patiently as I was sure the aircraft would have to return to the UAE anyway.”
He said he was sad to see all shops and counters closed and curtained at the airport in Kerala’s capital city. “One staff member assisted me till the immigration. I got escorted by another airline staff till the flight,” Sasikumar recollected.
A businessman in the UAE since 1979, Sasikumar had taken several flights to many countries (more frequently to India, Thailand and the US) for business and personal trips over the past four decades. But, the flight to Sharjah on July 14 was entirely different. “The crew sat on their seats. I was all alone in passenger seats. The take-off and landing were very smooth. During the flight it almost felt like I was driving alone in the air,” he explained.
The crew members were friendlier than usual and treated their solo passenger with extra snacks, said Sasikumar. “I had only booked a sandwich and water. They gave me chips, coffee, biscuits etc”
However, he couldn’t take a nap even when there was no one else to disturb. “As such, the tension about catching the virus during air travel was a big concern those days. On top of it, wearing the mask and face shield etc was indeed a hassle.”
On landing in Sharjah around 8.30pm, he said his heart sank to see a deserted airport with no hustle and bustle that existed during the pre-pandemic days. “I think I came out in five minutes. My 30kg baggage was kept on the floor outside the conveyor belt. On arrival, the COVID-19 test was done in a separate building where I had to go in a bus and the immigration clearance was done after that.”
He said he breathed a sigh of relief once he reached home where his wife had been unexpectedly separated from him for four months. “I suffered for four months. But, my return flight was a record. I appreciate the airline and the crew for the service. Usually I don’t take selfies. But, I took a couple of selfies aboard to keep memories of my solo flight,” said the grandfather of one.
In the case of Diya, the flight on July 25 was not meant to happen as the airline had already informed the passengers who had booked tickets that they could board the flight only with COVID-19 negative PCR test reports from Pure Health-approved labs as per a fresh announcement made that week. Diya was on vacation at her grandparents’ house and apparently, her grandmother had missed that call. Hence, they ended up reaching the airport to catch the flight.
Though Diya’s journey seemed difficult initially, the family managed to discuss the issue with the officials of various departments. Diya was later allowed to fly considering the fact that the new rule would be implemented only from August 1, as against the previous announcement, and that children below 12 could fly without a PCR report by then.
Diya’s mother Sajitha Pauly was a member of the “#TakeMeToMom” social media campaign launched by Indian mothers in the UAE whose children were stuck back home during the pandemic. The grade one student in Bright Riders School in Abu Dhabi eventually flew all alone as an unaccompanied minor. After she landed in Abu Dhabi, Diya was escorted to her anxious mother.
Though Diya did not take any photos while inside the flight, a smiling photo of her with her mother after their happy reunion is something that the family would cherish forever.
“Diya was the face of children who got stranded in India during the pandemic. Her solo flight was historic. Mothers in our group were very happy when she reached,” said Dr. Nita Salam, a founder administrator of the #TakeMeToMom group.
One co-passenger for company
While Sasikumar and Diya had the luxury of having a whole flight all for themselves, another Indian expat, Thinley Youden Bhutia, had just one co-passenger for company when she arrived on the first flight from India to the UAE after services resumed on July 12.
An emergency medical dispatcher in Sharjah, Thinley had been stuck in her hometown in the north eastern state of Sikkim after the flight suspensions. Following repeated flight cancellations, Thinley finally managed to book a return flight from New Delhi to Sharjah on July 12, which happened to be the first flight to land from India to the UAE.
“Upon arrival at the gate, I realised only me and one Punjabi brother were there to travel on that flight. It felt awkward, but at the same time I felt good that we are safer with very limited number of people in the entire plane,” said Thinely. “After facing numerous hurdles on the way from my hometown to Delhi, it was a miracle journey to the UAE for me. I felt very special at the Sharjah International Airport when staff got shocked to see only two of us in the entire plane ... VIP feelings, you know,” she chuckled.
Thinley said her co-passenger had sat a few seats away to maintain social distance and hence he did not come in the selfie that she took on board. “I may not look great in that selfie, but that is an extra special one for me,” Thinley said about the selfie in which empty seats can be seen behind her just like in the one taken by Sasikumar.