NEW YORK: Some of the Indian nationals stranded in the US due to COVID-19 related international travel restrictions will fly back home on Sunday on a non-scheduled commercial flight from New Jersey to Mumbai and Ahmedabad, even as authorities said another five flights have been arranged to repatriate others still stuck in the country.
Beginning May 9, Air India has scheduled seven non-scheduled commercial flights from the US to India facilitating the return of Indian nationals, who could not travel due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Indian Embassy in Washington had said in its advisory on Wednesday night.
The first flight took off from San Francisco on Saturday to Mumbai and Hyderabad.
The Air India flight from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey will fly on Sunday, taking back Indian nationals to Mumbai and Ahmedabad under India's biggest ever repatriation exercise named 'Vande Bharat Mission'.
Another flight from Newark will fly on May 14 to Delhi and Hyderabad.
All passengers will be required to undergo medical screening before boarding the flight and only asymptomatic passengers will be allowed to travel.
All passengers on arrival in India will be medically screened and would have to download and register the Aarogya Setu app.
Further, all passengers will need to undergo a 14-day mandatory quarantine on arrival in India in institutional facilities on payment basis as per the protocols framed by Government of India.
Highly placed sources in the Indian Consulate in New York said that it "has been a relentless and non-stop work" to coordinate the repatriation exercise and authorities "are going out of their way to make sure not even one seat on the flight goes vacant" since a large number of Indians are stranded in the US due to various reasons and they are "desperate" to go home.
Priority is being given to stranded passengers, terminally-ill patients, passengers with medical concerns and students.
The sources said that while flights from New Jersey were only supposed to take passengers from states that fall under the jurisdiction of the Consulate in New York, special arrangements have been made to ferry four terminally-ill patients from Houston.
Apart from the two flights from New Jersey, two flights have been scheduled from Chicago on May 11 (to Mumbai and Chennai) and May 15 (Delhi and Hyderabad).
The solo flight from Washington DC on May 12 will fly to Delhi and Hyderabad.
Sources said that some people who had initially registered to return to India on the flights later balked and changed their plans as they did not want to undergo the two-week mandatory quarantine on arrival in India.
Sources said the repatriation exercise could be expanded to countries where there is high demand.
Under the 'Vande Bharat' Mission, India has already repatriated its citizens from the Gulf and the UK.
Nearly 15,000 Indians are expected to return on special Air India flights from 12 countries in the coming days.
The sources said efforts were being made to reach out to the Indians stranded in the US.
The Indian Consulate here has been assisting several students by helping them with accommodation and essential services after their university and college dormitories closed down.
Indian Consulate sources said they were facing a number of challenges in the repatriation exercise.
People share credit card details with pizza companies but now they are reluctant to share details when the Consulate and Air India authorities are working round-the-clock to help them, the sources added.
Meanwhile, Air India's second repatriation flight to bring back Indians stranded in the UK due to the coronavirus lockdown took off from the Heathrow Airport here for Bengaluru on Sunday with 323 passengers.
Besides the 323 students, tourists and other Indian passport holders, the flight is flying back the body of a 37-year-old Indian-origin man who committed suicide at his home in south-east England.
This was the second of the first set of seven Air India repatriation flights as part of the Indian government's Vande Bharat Mission to bring home stranded Indians.
Gadigeppagouda Onkaragouda Patil died at Slough in Berkshire on March 13, days before the pandemic-related lockdown grounded international flights to India.
"This was a complicated case but with the help of the Indian government, his family will be able to conduct his last rites," said the President of the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) diaspora group, who is involved with the coordination of the repatriation process.
Patil's case was complicated as a result of strict new rules for the repatriation of human remains and was made possible only after a new visa was issued.
His coffin has now been transported back to his home-town of Bengaluru after the clearance from the coroner in England.
"Air India's evacuation flight for Bengaluru takes off with 323 stranded Indians on board. Shubh Yatra," the Indian High Commission in London said in a statement on Sunday.
The Indian mission has urged all passengers to follow the norm of "Do Gaj Doori, Bahut Hair Zaroori" as far as possible, with Air India providing passengers with a kit containing meals, snacks, sanitizer, mask and gloves.
On landing, they will be directed to the relevant state government organised quarantine venues for their 14-day self-isolation.
The aircraft, which will land in Bengaluru later on Sunday, comes a day after the first repatriation flight landed in Mumbai in the early hours of Sunday.
The next set of flights over the next week in phase one of the Vande Bharat Mission for the UK will cover Hyderabad (Monday), Mumbai (Tuesday), Ahmedabad (Wednesday), Chennai (Thursday) and New Delhi (Friday).
Organisers have said that further flights are planned from the UK to other cities of India as well in phase two of the repatriation mission.
The schedule is being coordinated by the Indian High Commission in London, with payments made directly to Air India by confirmed passengers.
The first set of flights to India will prioritise Indian passport holders on vulnerability and health grounds.
On their way from India to the UK, these flights will also be bringing back some expatriates and UK visa holders wanting to fly back to London's Heathrow Airport.