Flying in the times of a pandemic, which has already affected more than two lakh Indians, is easier said than done. Following fervent calls from my panic-stricken parents to return to Kolkata after seeing the rising Covid-19 cases in Delhi, where I work, I managed to shore up my confidence to make the over 1500-km journey.
With West Bengal opening its airport three days after the DGCA allowed domestic flight operations to resume, I managed to book a ticket for June 2 as fares for the initial days showed anywhere between Rs 9000 and Rs 11,000 — this despite the aviation regulator capping prices for the Delhi to Kolkata route between Rs 3000 and Rs 10,000.
The next task at hand was akin to a student preparing for his school exams. With the DGCA issuing a host of guidelines for both airports and in-flight, every procedure had been modified as I geared up to take my first flight in a post-COVID world.
Taking a print out of my boarding pass, understanding conflicting information on baggage tags, downloading the Arogya Setu app, and arranging for a cab at a time when Ubers and Olas are set to resume operations at full strength suddenly made the travel plan seem like a mission.
As the day of the journey arrived, a flurry of questions went through my mind: what if my area is suddenly declared a containment zone, will my cab be stopped at night (my flight was at 7.30 am), what if the Arogya Setu app shows red during check-up.
With sleep deserting me as my brain toyed with such questions, I finally reached the airport at 4.30 am in a cab that I had booked from the local taxi service, for which I had to shell out Rs 700 — about triple the price it usually takes to cover the 16-km distance.
Armed with an N-95 mask, latex gloves that had my hands sweating in no time, and clutching a printout of my ticket, I proceeded towards the entry gate. Before I could enter, I had to sanitise my trolley twice — first, a disinfectant was sprayed before passing it through a specially designed UV (ultraviolet) tunnel.
To maintain social distancing at these points, the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport had floor-marked passenger areas on the kerbside. There were also kiosks set up outside the terminal building to print boarding passes for those who had already checked in.
A CISF staffer then checked my boarding pass and identity card through plexiglass at the entry gate before another staff checked my temperature and the mandatory green status on the Aarogya Setu app. Senior people who did not have the app were directed towards another desk for assistance and were made to download it on the spot.
Soon after, I directly headed to the Vistara check-in desks and deposited my luggage at the designated area — all contactless. The Vistara official asked me to click a photo of the baggage tag which contained details like my name, PNR number, flight number, date of travel and weight of the luggage.
The security check-in process was as per the normal practice, with passengers having to place objects like belts, mobiles, laptops, power banks and other electrical equipment on “sanitised” trays. However, instead of the normal scanner, the CISF personnel used an elongated body scanner of one-metre length to avoid close contact.
Following the security check, I proceeded towards the departing gate, where passengers were seated leaving one seat vacant between each of them. A sneeze or a cough was met with suspicious stares by people seated in the lounge.
Since mine was an early morning flight, the toilet was relatively cleaner and a separate garbage bin marked in yellow to deposit used gloves and masks were placed outside.
Exactly one hour before take-off, the airline staff called out the seat numbers for boarding and initially only a set of 10 passengers were allowed. However, I noticed that most of the passengers huddled near the boarding gate despite their numbers not being called out, throwing social distancing caution to the winds.
At the boarding gate, I collected a safety kit, comprising a hand sanitiser, a three-ply mask, and a face shield after self-scanning the boarding pass, and finally, 2.5 hours after arriving at the airport, I boarded the A320 Neo Vistara flight.
Five minutes seated inside the flight, I soon found out that wearing a face shield and mask along with glasses was no child’s play and felt quite uncomfortable. The flight attendants were all wearing PPE kits along with face shields and gloves as they went through their routine precautionary guidelines.
Once airborne, I decided to catch up with some sleep even as the thought of homecoming and having home-cooked breakfast after almost four months filled my mind. Upon arrival, a similar procedure was followed while deplaning and we were asked to fill a “self-declaration” form before leaving the terminal
A temperature scan was conducted before the exit gate even though I never received any such form before I walked out of the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose airport. Interestingly, all the passengers were videographed before exiting. As I reached home, I breathed a sigh of relief after such a long period of uncertainty.
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