COVID-19: Indians scramble to return to UAE before flight suspension as ticket prices top Dh4,000

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Passengers trying to book last minute tickets from Cochin International Airport in Kerala on Friday. Image Credit: Courtesy: Praveen M.K

Dubai: Several Indians affected by the UAE entry restriction beginning from 11:59pm on Saturday had to dig deep into their pockets to purchase last-minute tickets at exorbitant rates.

Due to the explosive surge in COVID-19 cases in India, the UAE announced the suspension of inbound passenger flights from India for 10 days with exemption given for transit flights and certain categories of passengers including UAE nationals, diplomatic passport holders and golden residency visa holders. The temporary entry restriction for Indians including, transiting passengers who had been to India within the past 14 days, is subject to review.

The scramble for the few thousands of tickets that were available over the weekend from India saw stranded passengers rushing for COVID-19 tests and flooding travel agencies and airline offices with calls and visits to book tickets.

Several people ended up buying tickets whose rates skyrocketed after the announcement about the flight suspension. Hundreds of people also opted to travel for one-way tickets by paying up to Dh4,000 on a few charter flights that were operated by Indian and UAE airlines. “Fares surged for all the airlines soon after the announcement. In some sectors, the ticket rates multiplied many times. Many people were unable to book tickets because of the high fares and the difficulties in getting COVID-19 test results,” said Nazim A.K, travel manager at Al Fain Travel in Dubai.

Around 90 to 100 flights a day

Afi Ahmed, managing director of Smart Travel, said an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 passengers were expected to land in the UAE from India over the weekend. “There were about 90 to 100 flights that operated daily from India to the UAE in the past couple of days. Some additional flights were opened as charter service this weekend because of the rush. Most of the flights were already full and going by the calculations we made, around 35,000 passengers are expected to reach the UAE in total on Friday and Saturday.”

He said several thousands of passengers might have tried to get a slot on those seats and got disappointed. “We have been flooded with calls since yesterday evening. Several passengers have been begging to somehow book tickets for them.”

“Some passengers opted for transiting through different Indian cities because they failed to get tickets from theirs. I know passengers who went from Kerala to Delhi on one airline and took Abu Dhabi flight of another airline,” he added.

Ironically, the additional flights announced by airlines offered UAE to India fares as low as Dh199, 20 times less than the fare charged for the return flights on the same aircraft. Travel experts said this was the cheapest flight ticket rate from the UAE to India in several decades. The UAE-India fares had already dropped significantly after several Indians refrained from flying home due to surge in COVID-19 infections over there. Many have cancelled their vacation plans and rescheduled their tickets as well.

“I came to the UAE 29 years ago and I have been in this [travel] field for 22 years. This is the first time I am seeing a fare less than Dh200 to India. This is something historic. It is just for one day. I don’t think it will happen ever again,” said Afi.

While those who managed to reschedule their tickets were concerned about the steep hike in fares, travel agents said, passengers whose flights were cancelled during the suspension period were concerned about timely reschedule and refunds when the restrictions would be lifted.

Big struggle back home

Speaking to Gulf News from India, some UAE residents shared their big struggle to return by Saturday night.

Dubai resident Praveen M.K, who had planned to fly back to his family here on April 28 said he struggled a lot to get a ticket from Kochi on Saturday. “I had to leave my home in Chalakudy around 6am to reach a lab in Kochi, which gives out the test report in 24 hours, as soon as it opened today. After giving my swab for the test, I went to the Air India Express office to book the ticket as I was unable to book it online. Since their booking system was down, I had to go to their office at the airport and get the ticket issued manually.”

Though he wanted to travel to Dubai, he said he finally managed to book his ticket on an evening flight to Sharjah for Dh1,375 as the Dubai flight was early in the morning and he was doubtful about receiving the test report in time.

Another Dubai resident, who did not wish to be named, said she had flown down to New Delhi and later travelled to Bengaluru. “I was supposed to fly on April 30 but I already booked the ticket on April 26 because I sensed this [flight ban] was coming as there were a lot of speculations around. But I had to pay an equivalent amount of another ticket to get it changed to Saturday after one of my friends alerted me about the flight ban.”

She said getting a COVID-19 test done last minute was another challenge. “I rushed early this morning for the test. The testing centre was full of people travelling. There is a huge backlog in all labs and hospitals. I just hope that my result comes out in time for me to fly. But I am sure I wouldn’t have even managed to get a test done had I still been in New Delhi.”

Expats worried about relatives

Sharjah resident Mercy Jose was in tears when she could not book a ticket for her daughter who had gone to Kerala for her college exam. “She is in Kollam and the nearest airport is in Thiruvananthapuram. We were not able to get any ticket online or through travel agents. I am looking for someone to go to the airline offices or airport to make a last-minute attempt to book a ticket for her,” she said at the time of filing this report.

An admin manager, Mercy said she was worried that the entry restrictions might get extended because of the massive spike in COVID-19 in India. “My husband and children had got stranded in India during the lockdown last year and I was all alone here for five months. I don’t want my daughter to feel lonely there. It’s always better for the whole family to be together if anything like that happens,” she added.

UAE resident Shraddha Naik’s parents Vaman (left) and Vaishali were among the thousands of passengers whose travel to the UAE was affected due to temporary ban on entry of passengers from India. Image Credit: Supplied

Shraddha Naik, an occupational therapist in Al Ain, said she was concerned about her parents who were supposed to come over to the UAE in the first week of May. “They are in Mumbai where the COVID situation is extremely bad. So, I wanted to bring them over here because the pandemic situation in the UAE is under control now. I had already taken visit visas for them. We were to book their tickets in the first week of May after my mother completes the second dose of her vaccination on May 1.”

She said it was impossible for them to fly before the flight suspension. “The situation is getting worse in India. I feel this travel restriction will be extended after 10 days. I just hope that my parents can come over the soonest. I am really sad because it was a long awaited trip and I am really worried about their safety over there.”