air india flight coronavirus evacuation

What Flying in a Near-Empty Plane Amid the Pandemic Feels Like

I always wished to not have anyone sit next to me on a flight so I could stretch out. I never imagined how unsettling it would actually be when it comes true.

I came to Mumbai from London on February 29 for what was initially going to be a two-week holiday. My husband, Vedant, and I always do this annual holiday, one week of which is spent in Mumbai with my parents and another in Bhopal with my in-laws. We were supposed to fly out on March 15 but by then, the whole COVID-19 scenario had started taking shape across the world. At that time, the situation in London was worse than in India. And then the company where I work, LinkedIn, announced work-from-home for all employees, starting March 16. Since I was already in India, it didn’t make sense to go back. There was already a lot of chaos about the rules and regulations at the airports, and whether flying was safe at all. So we thought we would stay back in India for one more week, analyse the situation, and then take a call. We flew to Bhopal to live with my in-laws on March 18, but on March 22, it was announced that the borders were shutting because of the nationwide lockdown.


One week stretched up to May 7. Vedant and I were both working from home and clocking in London hours in India, to be in sync with our office timings. This meant that we would start work at noon and then continue right until 10 p.m. The first couple of weeks saw us being very positive about it all, but then it dawned on us that this was tougher in the long run. Our home in London had been shut for almost nine weeks by then. We were just desperate to go back to our own place and go on with life at our own pace.

Soon, we realised that the British government was starting repatriation efforts, which meant they were flying back British citizens, nationals as well as visa holders from around the world, including India. We quickly registered with the British embassy on April 12, and got a place in the queue. But I guess the British government didn’t realise the overwhelming response, in terms of the sheer number of UK nationals present in India—I think it was somewhere around 40-45,000 people! This was no mean feat. Realising the scale of the operation, they changed their policies and said they will prioritise British nationals, followed by their dependents, over resident permit holders like me. And then they announced closure of flights. We had no choice but to just wait.

What happened next was really interesting. We were following an Indian journalist called Nikunj Garg on Twitter, through whom we would get many updates about the lockdown situation. On May 4, he broke the news about an evacuation effort by the government. India’s Vande Bharat Mission is a massive repatriation effort by the government to bring back stranded Indians from around the world. In the first phase that started on May 7, more than 60 “non-scheduled, commercial” flights were to operate from about 12 countries to bring back 15,000 citizens. Common sense dictates that if there are 60 flights that will go out of India, they will need some sort of passengers on the way there as well.


Soon, the civil aviation guys said that an announcement would come up on India’s Ministry of Home Affairs website. But it just led to everybody rushing to this website—and I’m guessing it would be lakhs of people around the world waiting to come back to India or get out of India—and so, the website crashed. They then announced that because of the website crashing, the schedules would go up on the Air India website. Within five minutes though, that website crashed too! But luckily, we had managed to download the Air India app and book our tickets there. We paid almost Rs 1,50,000 (around $2,000) between the two of us for one-way tickets, which is three times the amount we would normally pay.

Right after we got the confirmation for the flight, the flight details vanished from the app and website. One could only see another flight for May 12. I waited for a cancellation but it never came. I tried to call the airlines but their phone lines were jammed. The day before we were to board, we called the customer service and requested for a confirmation considering we weren’t even in Mumbai from where the flight was to take off. But they assured me the flight was on. This is when we decided to undertake the road trip from Bhopal to Mumbai, a 780-kilometre distance that takes around 15 hours to cover. We hired a driver and applied for an e-pass to travel between states, which is another process involving loads of documents and waiting in a queue.


It typically takes 24 hours for the pass but we decided not to wait for it as otherwise, we would’ve missed the flight. We were able to get a ‘praman patra’ (letter of permission), which is a declaration from the chief minister’s office stating the urgency of our travel on account of our flight, which helped us through the border police and state tolls. We left Bhopal at 12 noon on May 7. Our flight was on May 8 at 6.30 a.m. With roughly 15 hours of travel ahead, we hit the road. Thankfully, because of the empty roads, it took us 12 hours. But the drive itself was dystopian, with miles and miles of absolutely no humans. Once in a while, we would see lorries transporting essential goods, but other than that, nobody. The towns and villages we passed all seemed like ghost towns.

We reached Mumbai at midnight, showered at my parents’ place, and reached the airport at 2.30 a.m, four hours before we were to take off. To our surprise, the entire international terminal was empty! Seeing the otherwise brightly lit airport, now with dimmed lighting, not fully functional and without a single soul around, was surreal. At around 4.30 a.m, when we saw Air India staff enter the terminal, we finally heaved a sigh of relief.


Spotting the flight through the Mumbai T2 terminal—the only operational flight of the day.

After this, everything went really smoothly. Two guys in hazmat suits gave us documents to fill out, and then we entered the airport. It was a bit eerie because in this gigantic terminal, only our flight was operating, carrying around five passengers (because, for some reason, the booking window for this flight was open for only 10 minutes, so only a handful of us managed to get on it) and five cabin crew. The crew was in full PPE gear and handed us hygiene kits with gloves, masks and visors, along with a big plastic bag of snacks and two simple but practical meals placed at our feet so as to minimise contact with the staff. Going to sleep in an empty flight is just bizarre but thankfully, we were too tired to worry. Strangely, I’ve always wished for a flight where I don’t have someone sitting next to me so I can stretch out. But that day, with only five passengers on board, I only felt unsettled because I’d never imagined this scenario.


In the Before Coronavirus era, this was the dream.

When we landed, we had the quickest immigration experience ever but weirdly enough, London did not have any quarantine rules whatsoever. No one took our temperatures and no one told us to stay at home for two weeks, even though that’s what we’re doing now.


Namita Singh Thakur (right) and her husband, Vedant Thakur, took a 12-hour road trip followed with a 4-hour wait at the airport and a 9-hour flight to get home.

I later came to know that the flight that took us to London brought 326 Indians back to their country, as part of the biggest-ever repatriation effort in the world. Today, we have a WhatsApp group for other people who are stranded, like us, so we can help them with information on permissions, e-passes, border crossing and other things that we faced too. We got lucky because I don’t know for how long we will be stuck indoors now. But walking through an empty terminal and flying almost alone on a plane, which is otherwise meant to seat 250 people, is an experience that makes me feel like I lived through a dystopia.

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