For around 13 years, I’ve been in Mumbai pursuing a career in marketing. My wife, also a corporate professional, and I, have an apartment in Bandra, Mumbai. She had to move back to Chennai for her career, a few months before the lockdown was implemented. My parents are also based in Chennai. So, since mid-March, I have been on my own, stuck in my apartment, with nothing but work and video calls with my family to keep be occupied; life looked lacklustre.
When domestic flights resumed operations on May 25, 2020, I couldn’t wait to take the first flight out and go back to Chennai to be with my parents and wife—a risk worth taking when social distancing is the need of the hour. My flight to Chennai was a nine-hour long journey; I had a layover at Hyderabad since there weren’t direct flights to Chennai. It was an expensive one-way trip, priced at Rs 9000, including seat selection. Ticket booking was a regular affair, just like it used to be pre-COVID-19, however, what followed thereafter was not.
Since Ola and Uber services were not operational yet due to the lockdown, I had to opt for a chauffeur-driven car from CarzOnRent. From Bandra to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport Terminal 1, at Rs 1200, the cost was indeed steep, but nothing compared to getting back to my family. It was a deal I was happy with. Unlike regular pick and drop of cabs, rental car services have a minimum time frame as a stipulation. Since I had to stop over at Juhu to get print outs for the flight, that was also managed.
I reached two and a half hours before my flight to avoid any inconveniences, but the check-in process took just half hour. There were barely any people at the check-in counter—this was probably because there are limited flights, as more routes and flights get operational, the airport will get chaotic. At the airport and before you enter the terminal, the airport officials checked if you had the Arogya Setu app on your mobile, followed by temperature checks, which I cleared. At the airport, there is no need to carry a printed boarding pass so officials can scan it from your phone from a distance, brownie points for that! The identification check was also done from behind a glass.
Things got a little confusing once I entered the airport. The baggage drop was business as usual—weighing at the counter and transferred on to the carousel. At the counter, I realized that the detour to Juhu to get printouts of the boarding pass and baggage tags were a sheer waste of time as the lady at the counter handed me a printed copy of the boarding pass and baggage tags. So much for contact-free check-in! However, I do feel this may be because it was the first week of flights operating, and the staff was able to manage the influx of passengers.
At the security check, things were as per usual norms, and didn’t take much time. I settled down near the boarding gate. To maintain social distance alternate chairs were marked with an X, so that those chairs weren’t occupied. Everyone on the flight was provided with a mask, face shield and sanitizer sachets for individual use. However, a word of caution here. The masks provided by the authorities were rather flimsy and didn’t have the nose clip that allows it to stay in place on your face. Thankfully, I had my own mask, which I did not take off at any point. The face shield was a big help though. It is important for everyone to know that there is no food service on board the craft, so come with a full stomach and hydrate yourself well before you board the flight. This is as per new guidelines issued by the government for airline operations. The airline did serve water in disposable containers that needed to be gulped down before I boarded the plane.
If you’re wondering that the flight must’ve been empty, it wasn’t. It was packed! And no, middle seats weren’t left empty either. Things were just the usual with people fighting for elbow space and arm rest. To my horror, I even spotted some fellow passengers removing their shoes, and stretching their legs on the backrest of the seat in front of them. Few even managed to smuggle in food and devour it on board. While it is not easy getting used to wearing a mask, there were many who removed the plastic face shield, only so they could watch movies better on their smartphones. Social distancing rules were largely flouted with people standing too close to you, crotch-to-ass, during boarding and deboarding. My suggestion is to be the tattletale you hated in school and report them to the crew; it’s not just for your benefit, but for everyone’s health.
If you’re thinking about using the restrooms onboard a flight, don’t! It is a high-risk zone, where you’re bound to come in contact with some surface or the other. I didn’t use the loo, but I generally don’t on domestic flights.
Finally, when I landed in Chennai, I heaved a sigh of relief that the journey was finally over, and I would be united with my family. Tamil Nadu has stringent rules for travellers coming into the state. I had to get an e-pass to enter the state, which was checked once at the Hyderabad airport and then again at Chennai airport. The e-pass has a QR code that the authorities scan along with another round of temperature check. My wife picked me up from the airport. We had to get an e-pass made for the car and her. But considering that there were no checks in place to verify this, it all seemed silly. While my wife drove, I sat in the back. Once we got home the car was disinfected.
I also had to go under self-quarantine for 14 days as per the state’s requirement. I had a room to myself with access to an open terrace for fresh air and workouts. I used an induction stove to make coffee and hot water for all 14 days, while my family left my food at the door for me; hotel room service style, but I did wash the utensils and returned them. I also soaked my clothes in hot water before they were sent for a wash. This was perhaps the most excruciating bit, being with family, but not being able to spend time with them. Thankfully, my work keeps me occupied.
The entire process was long and tedious but equally necessary.
As told to Sayoni Bhaduri