The initial stringent lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 left many stranded far away from their hometowns and families. Those who had moved for work found themselves unable to return home as all forms of transport were suspended. Emergency travel was allowed only for those with pressing reasons and availability of a personal vehicle.
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With each extension of the lockdown, some relaxations were accorded. Inter-state trains for guest workers were operationalised after a large number of guest workers began travelling by foot to their homes which were hundreds of kilometres away. After more easing of lockdown norms, domestic air travel began with limited routes on May 25th.
Detailed Standard Operating Procedure for flights have been issued by the Civil Aviation Ministry and respective states on the processes to be followed. Citizen Matters spoke to two individuals who recently took flights into and out of Chennai to understand what to expect if you are planning to fly.
A Chennai home-coming
Rishi Sankaran had gone to Pune towards the end of March to be by the side of his pregnant wife. After their birth of their baby boy, Rishi hoped to head back home to Chennai to be with his elderly father. To his dismay, he found that the lockdown had clamped down on all movement. With the high number of cases in Maharashtra, the restrictions meant that he was policed even for taking a walk in the streets, and there was not the remotest possibility of his being able to travel to Chennai.
“I waited for many days to see if I would be able to travel. I even wrote to the Chief Minister’s office explaining my situation and asking for assistance but didn’t receive any response. When we got news of domestic flight operation resumption, I decided to book a flight for Chennai. The direct flight got cancelled so I booked one with a changeover in Bangalore,”, said Rishi.
Excerpts from our conversation with Rishi on his entire experience:
Documents & E-pass – I did not take a COVID test in Pune but had a doctor do a general check-up. He issued a certificate that said I did not display any COVID symptoms; I carried that with me in case it was needed.
I obtained a TN E-pass by applying online after booking my flight. I was not asked for the E-pass in Pune but before boarding in Bangalore I had to show the TN E-pass. A few of the passengers who did not have E-pass were not allowed to board.
Travel to and from the airport – Since Pune is under stringent restrictions, I was not able to get a cab. My wife dropped me off at the airport. In Chennai, I was picked up by my brother. But when we walked out, I saw autos and cabs outside the airport.
Aarogya Setu app – I had the app installed, had to show the app at both airports
Before boarding – Web check-in was mandatory. When I reached the airport in Pune there was a thermal check after which I was allowed to carry on. We were given a bottle of water prior to boarding and asked to drink it if we feel thirsty. Once on board, we were not allowed to eat or drink anything. At the Bangalore airport, during transit I saw shops open. When the boarding call was made, they mentioned the seat numbers and we had to board in batches accordingly.
Inside the flight – The airline provided everyone with a face shield, sanitiser and mask. We were asked to keep it on at all times. The middle seats too were occupied so there was no social distancing inside the flight.
Upon disembarking – Once we landed in Chennai, everyone immediately got off their seats. No proper distancing was maintained. Bags can be collected from the conveyor belt. Next to that is a screening station where a thermal scan is done for everyone.
Once the thermal scan was done, and if you did not show symptoms of COVID, you were allowed to move ahead. A police officer stood nearby and he took down my details and got my E-pass number. I was asked to remain in home quarantine for 14 days. My hand was stamped regarding the same. I landed in Chennai on the night of May 28th and received a call from the Chennai Corporation checking on me on May 31st.
“I am glad to be back. I will be following the home quarantine strictly. Considering the scale of the task, the government is doing what it can, but it can do better. There was not much social distancing at all stages. I also expected to be tested as I was returning from Maharashtra, which is a hotspot state. But I would have had to opt for institutional quarantine in that case. Now with home quarantine I can get back to working from home.”
Nithyanandan Karuppusamy is a native of Coimbatore who has been working in Chennai. Once the lockdown began, he decided to brave it out on his own at his rented residence in Velachery. But as he began to see no end to the lockdown, he moved in with a friend to break the monotony of the days. He still desired to be with family and hoped to travel by road. But his E-pass application was rejected thrice. Faced with no other option, he waited it out till flights became operational.
“I was managing on my own but as the days went by, it got very lonely. There was also stress regarding the spread of the virus. Working from home and managing the house at the same time was tough. So I booked the first flight to Coimbatore once booking opened,” Nithyanandan shared.
Excerpts from our conversation with Nithyanandan on his experience:
Documents & E-pass – I reached out to TNEGA on Twitter to check if my travel to Coimbatore by flight needed a pass. I was told that if my destination was Coimbatore and not neighbouring districts, then I would not require an E-pass. I carried an ID proof.
Travel to and from the airport – I got dropped by a friend at the Chennai airport. I used personal transport to get home in Coimbatore.
Aarogya Setu app – I checked the guidelines and installed the app but I was not asked for the app either in Coimbatore or Chennai.
Before boarding – I was stopped by the police at the entrance of the Chennai airport and was asked about my destination. I was then allowed in. Since my flight was one of the very first, there was not much of a queue. Web check-in was mandatory. I was allowed only one Check-in and one hand baggage. The check-in procedure was as usual.
There was no food counter that was open inside the airport, even the vending machines had been turned off. We were told no food would be provided in-flight.
ID and boarding pass was verified by a person sitting behind a glass counter. Only persons coming in to Chennai from other states were asked for an E-pass.
Inside the flight – The airline gave us all a face shield, mask and sanitisers. The flight had some empty seats.
Upon disembarking – Once we landed, there was no orderly exiting from the flight. Once we were out of the flight and in the airport, we were divided into queues based on our destination. Those who were staying put in Coimbatore were in one queue while others heading to Ooty or Tiruppur or Erode were in a separate queue. We were asked to fill in a self-declaration form regarding COVID symptoms, details such as our address and contact. Thermal screening was done.
Testing – I expected to be able to head home after this but we were subjected to a COVID swab test. Ten persons wearing full PPE took swab samples from all the passengers. After this we were asked to wait in an adjoining hall for further instructions.
Quarantine and Results – A quarantine stamp was done for all of us. In the waiting hall, we were told that we must quarantine ourselves at a paid hotel or free government facility until the results of our tests were declared, which could take up to a day.
The hotel options had different price bands from cheap to expensive. I picked a hotel for quarantine. A bus was waiting to take us to the hotel which was near the railway station. None of us had had a chance to eat until then. We reached the hotel at 12.30, paid the days’ charges and were instructed to stay in the room. Someone came to take our food order and food was delivered.
Test results were revealed to us at 11pm. I tested negative, as did all others on my flight. I was free to head home and complete 14 days’ home quarantine. I had my family pick me up from the hotel.
“I’m happy to be home after close to 65 days. But the process itself has been quite confusing. I am not sure why those flying do not need a pass while those who are travelling by road must obtain one. Many people in Chennai are those who have moved there for jobs and would like to return home now; I hope some arrangements are made for them to be able to do that.”
SOP and deviations
The SOP issued by the Tamil Nadu government at the time of the start of domestic air travel did not call for testing of all passengers but only those who are symptomatic.
The SOP on testing was followed in the case of Rishi’s flight from Bangalore to Chennai. But testing was done for all passengers from Chennai to Coimbatore on the flight taken by Nithyanandan.
The rationale of the SOP must also be called into question as six asymptomatic passengers who arrived at Coimbatore were in fact found to be COVID positive after tests at the airport. A majority of Tamil Nadu’s COVID positive patients have been found to be asymptomatic.
While the data from the official bulletin does not provide the number of tests carried out at each airport, the absence of even a single positive test at the Chennai airport — that saw much higher volume of domestic air traffic compared to that of Coimbatore or Madurai — raises an important question: Did the strict adherence to SOP, as seen in the case of Rishi’s travel, mean that only a limited number of swab tests were being carried out and only on those who are symptomatic? These would have excluded some people from the net, even if they were from hotspot states.
In contrast, all passengers arriving at the Coimbatore airport were subject to swab tests regardless of symptoms or their port of departure.
As per the revised guidelines on movement issued by the Government of Tamil Nadu on May 31st, those coming into Tamil Nadu from hotspot states of Gujarat, Delhi and Maharashtra must undergo mandatory testing if they arrive by train. Those from other states must undergo testing if symptomatic. It remains to be seen if the change in testing guidelines are also applied to air travellers and if so, if it would result an increase in number of COVID positive domestic airport arrivals in Chennai in the coming days.
- Arrive at the airport two hours prior to flight departure
- Carry the necessary E-pass if travelling from out of state
- Provide accurate contact information such as address and phone number
- Be transparent about the details provided in self-declaration form regarding any symptoms of COVID-19
- Wear a mask at all times
- Complete web check-in ahead of time
- Do not hide any symptoms of COVID-19
- Do not hide details such as travel history to COVID hotspots
- Do not violate social distancing norms while queuing up in the airport or after landing
- Do not try to erase the quarantine stamp
- Do not violate home quarantine norms and step out or interact with others before the completion of 14-day quarantine