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Vandana Srivastava (left) and children Kushagra and Syoni on board a Vande Bharat Mission repatriation flight from Dubai to New Delhi. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: When the time neared to end her five-and-a-half years of life in the UAE as the wife of an Indian diplomat at the Indian Consulate in Dubai, a return home on a repatriation flight had not crossed the mind of Vandana Srivastava.

But that was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the spread of the coronavirus forced suspension of flight services, Srivastava, an advocate who worked as a legal and business consultant in Dubai, had to brace up for the monumental change in her family’s life.

Having flown home with her two teenage children on a Vande Bharat Mission repatriation flight to Delhi, Srivastava, wife of Rahul Srivastava, who was the consul visa at the consulate, shared her experience of the journey and some tips for others planning to travel during the pandemic.

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Vandana Srivastava with her children Kushagra and Syoni. Image Credit: Supplied

Maintaining calm and reassuring yourself that this time would pass soon is the key to feeling stronger and face the challenges ahead of flying during these trying times, she told Gulf News.

The travel essentials for any passenger, as she purchased, should be sanitisers, personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, gloves, face shields, disinfectant sprays, and the likes.

“That was as opposed to the usual earphones and a good book to read,” said Srivastava, reminiscing her pre-COVID travel.

Wrap your luggage

Wrapping the entire check-in luggage in cellophane sheets is something that travellers might overlook, but strongly recommended by Srivastava.

“This would allow us to just open and discard them as soon as we reach our destination, allowing the main baggage to not be contaminated, and eliminating the need to disinfect the same,” said Srivastava.

After reaching Dubai International Airport, she said, she saw “quite a meticulous arrangement, with people waiting for their health checkups, before moving on to the usual airport protocol.”

“A vivid depiction of responsibility and unity was portrayed before our eyes as we saw every single person wear mask, gloves, maintain social distance, and follow all the new rules and regulations during the pandemic -- throughout the airport.”

Vandana Srivastava (centre) with her children Syoni and Kushagra.
Vandana Srivastava (centre) with her children Syoni and Kushagra. Image Credit: Supplied

After they passed the rapid antibody tests for COVID-19, and reached the boarding gate, she said Air India also gave them face shields, sanitisers and extra face masks for use during the journey. “They were also giving out wrap-around protective gowns to everyone sitting in the middle seat. However, upon seeing two children travelling with me, they decided to give it to all three of us. Even the security at the airport allowed all kinds of sanitisers and sprays to be taken on the flight during this pandemic, which was strictly forbidden in the past.”

After suiting up in the PPE, she said they felt like astronauts on a space mission, but not without feeling uncomfortable.

“We boarded a bus and entered our airplane as usual, but were informed soon that there would be no food or drinks served on the flight. Contrasted with the old times, air hostesses were giving out hand sanitisers instead of refreshments.”

On top of all the security measures taken by the airport and the airline, she said it felt prudent to make it a rule of thumb to spray disinfectant everywhere they went and everything they came in contact with.

Try not to eat and drink

“Owing to our fear and alertness, we did not eat or drink anything throughout the journey, and realised later on that everybody on the flight did the same.”

To add to the inconveniences, she said the flight was already running an hour late.

“The three-hour journey seemed much longer than it actually was, but we soon made it to the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. However, as opposed to what everyone believed, this was nowhere close to the end.”

They were told to remain seated inside the plane until further notice, and to also download the Aarogya Setu app, the coronavirus contact-tracing app created by the Indian government.

On landing, she said, people should be patient in disembarking.

After the plane was sanitised from the outside, the air hostess called out seat numbers on the aircraft's public address system, following which, the respective passengers could leave the flight.

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Vandana with Syoni and Kushagra waiting to board a repatriation flight in Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied

Since another flight had landed from Melbourne, she said, they had to wait further until passengers from that flight were cleared out.

Keeping documents ready comes in handy when proceeding for checkups, she said.

After passing temperature checks and submitting self-declaration health forms, she said they followed the standard airport procedures in maintaining social distancing and using a disinfectant spray whenever necessary, especially after collecting the luggage.

Expect lengthy procedures, delays

Passengers have to expect one more round of medical checkup for blood pressure, temperature and oxygen levels, she said.

“Then, we went to a small makeshift office outside the main airport building. This office was made to check if we had coronavirus or not, and would suggest the necessary means of precaution tailored to each person’s health situation. The three of us managed to pass all the formalities successfully, and were declared COVID negative.”

By the time they availed due permission to get to their hotel, it was almost 12 hours since they had started their journey from Dubai, she said.

“As soon as we reached, the hotel staff disinfected our luggage. We were taken to our room quickly, where we removed our PPE, took a bath, and felt like we were in paradise. It was almost after 13 hours when we had the second meal of the day. It truly was pure bliss to finally see this journey come to an end successfully, and we were grateful that we made it safely.”

Though airports and airlines are well-equipped with essential measures to ensure passengers travel safely with the least amount of hassle possible, she said preparing mentally for delays and possible mishaps could make air travel during the pandemic less daunting.