Two Air India Express flights from Dubai touched down in Chennai late on Saturday bringing home 356 Indians stranded overseas.
While the passengers and their families are greatly relieved for making the journey home, the process to ensure their safe transport amid the COVID-19 scare involves a high degree of rigour, hard work and sacrifice for pilots, cabin crew and ground staff involved in the mission.
"The crew faces a high risk of infection. But we have COVID-19 SOP in place. We brief and train every person using handbooks and videos from using PPEs to handling passengers. Even doctors train us," says Captain VS Rajkumar, Chief of Operations, Air India Express.
Despite the inherent health risk involved, large number of people have volunteered to be part of these special flights. "Our families are scared and even ask us to take long leave. But for us duty takes over. We have to do that. We have faith in our company," says Captain Sundeep Gunasekaran who commanded Air India Express flight from Dubai to Chennai.
Ms Geetha, a Senior Cabin Crew, adds: "We are proud to do this. Also honoured and privileged to do this for our nation".
Both Captain V S Rajkumar and his Pilot wife, Captain Kavitha Rajkumar, have signed up for the "Vande Bharat" mission to bring back stranded Indians and expatriates in other countries. Captain Kavitha Rajkumar took off from Trichy on Saturday to bring stranded Indians from Kuala Lumpur.
Cabin crew members who work closely with passengers exercise abundant caution to avoid any physical contact. A pack containing snacks, two water bottles, mask and sanitise is placed on passenger seats even before they are allowed entry to flights. Two carts with additional load of water bottles are also available for self service. The flight is fumigated, sanitised and deep cleaned. "Passengers should really travel light and carry less baggage during these times so they would get space for social distancing on board," says Vimal Kumar, a senior Cabin Crew Member.
The entire crew also face one big challenge during the flight time. They cannot attend nature's call during the journey till they dispose the one time crew PPEs, according to the protocal."Even after landing it takes an hour for us to dispose as we wait passengers disembark in groups of 20. So we time our intake of food and water much in advance, " says Captain Kailash Ramachadran.
"For longer flights the crew uses adult diapers to tide over", Captain Rajkumar explained.
These flights also have moments of humour. Referring to the paid quarantine facility mentioned on the declaration slip, Ms Geetha says a passenger once asked her, "Would I get a single-bed or double-bed?"
Air India is scheduled to operate 64 paid flights between May 7 and May 13 under a repatriation programme by the government to bring back thousands of Indians stranded overseas following the lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus.