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My trip to Calcutta during Covid-19 travel restrictions

 
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PAL@YWG
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Joined: 22 Dec 2006
Posts: 438
Location: YWG, Canada

PostPosted: Sun Oct 31, 2021 6:39 am    Post subject: My trip to Calcutta during Covid-19 travel restrictions Reply with quote

Every trip to India over last 30 years or so has been memorable but my last trip (to Calcutta) stands out as unique and adventurous. Adventurous in a negative sense, “Will I be able to cross the next hurdle?” Hurdle can be any of these; the proper documentation, RT-PCR test results coming negative on time or being able upload data using the right app. But finally, all worked out…I came back home after seeing my elderly parents in Calcutta as per my itinerary.

Here are the highlights:

Never thought that not having an OCI card can be such a big hurdle going to India during pandemic. As all regular flights are off the radar, the only way to travel between Canada and India during this time is catching one of the connecting “Vande Bharat Mission (VBM)” flights from somewhere after qualifying myself to have the honour of putting my bum in that particular flight. Sounds complicated?

VBM flights are operated under covid-time air bubble agreements between two countries. For example, one can take DXB- CCU flight if the person (1) has an OCI card or (2) connecting from any points of Africa or Latin America. For me YWG- YYZ- DXB was fathomable but I am not allowed take DXB- CCU. I even tried to buy a ticket from YWG- CCU from emirates.com but it will warn you that you can’t buy such a routing. But for all these VBM flights OCI cardholders can fly in and out of India from pretty much any points.
After carefully studying all the air bubble agreements, I found out that I can only transit through LHR. The agreement allows foreign nationals to transit thru UK on their way to India and back. Light at the end of the tunnel.
First, I had to take a special visa (type X) from Indian consulate, not a hassle just cost me CAD150. My valid 5-year e-tourist visa is of no use, temporarily suspended by India.

Now the process of buying ticket. Should I buy return ticket? What if covid numbers suddenly go up in India and I get stuck there? Already read so many horror stories of people getting stuck and finding no way out for months! After lots of thought, I decided that I will buy one way to Calcutta. And then depending on the situation unfolding, I will buy one way return on a short notice. Cost wise not a sound plan but I thought that’s the best option I have.
Bought 2 separate tickets: Air Canada YWG- YYZ- LHR and Air India LHR- CCU. Air India introduced this weekly service apparently just for me Smile; few weeks before my travel.

Did some research about connecting two star alliance member tickets here in this forum (iah87, thank you) and with friends. Connecting 2 tickets was very crucial for me otherwise for UK, I would be considered as if I am entering that country. In that case my covid test requirement (and associated costs) changes. I will have to buy two covid tests as against none if I can remain in Transit!

First CAD250 RT-PCR test done in Canada to satisfy the travel requirement for the UK (even if I am transiting). Night before my travel, covid results arrived (after some anxious moments) which I promptly uploaded on Passenger Locator Form” mandatory for anyone coming to/transiting thru UK. Print out showed “Airside/Transit” in bold letters. What if tomorrow the AC check in person tells me that two tickets can’t be connected and I have to collect my bag at LHR? Went to bed with some sense of uncertainty.
Reached YWG at least 3 hours before departure time. Explained to the check-in lady how critical for me to get my boarding passes till CCU. She tried to get it done by herself with no success. Supervisor came to help her. After about 20 tense minutes I got my bag checked in till CCU and also three boarding passes!

Had it not happen I had to update my “Passenger Locator Form” and book two covid tests for the UK!

Time now to fill in information for “Air Suvidha” app so that I can effortlessly board AI flight in London.

Sep 17 2021
YWG- YYZ: AC 264 Aircraft: Airbus 220-300 1445- 1805
YYZ- LHR: AC 856 Aircraft: Boeing777-300ER 2040- 0835+1
LHR- CCU: AI 164 Aircraft: Boeing 787-800 1315- 0305+1


YYZ boarding gates were bursting at the seams, as if we have gone back to pre-covid times.

LHR traffic volume was definitely subdued, Terminal 2 was pretty empty. Reached at my gate for AI 164. There were couple of other AI flights leaving for Cochi and Bombay. Loads are pretty thin. AI check in personnel checked body temperature, checked my Visa for India and handed me a covid kit that has a mask, plexi glass face cover and hand sanitizer. Before you board you have to wear all these gears, if you are worried how you will keep on wearing all these for a 9.5 hours flight then you better don’t fly! Better still the middle seat occupants have to wear full PPE robe on the top of all these! There were continuous announcements while on airborne about penalties for not following the covid instructions.

Air India it seems is on their last legs, it’s visible. IFE is bare minimum (live flight map didn’t work), food is gross! Aircraft (VT-ANP) has seen better days though it’s just 7 years old. Load was about 40%. Some passengers took advantage of empty seats and dozed off with their covid gears on!

On arrival at CCU, we were herded into an enclosed area for a RT- PCR test (INR 950). After giving sample we were allowed to go home. If test results come positive, Health authorities will contact me.

Time in Calcutta were passing at a hectic speed. Being Durga Puja time, covid restrictions were pretty relaxed as the infection rate was low. In all around hullaballoo I almost forgot to buy my return ticket.

While in Calcutta, got the news that Canada and India has agreed to open direct flights again. A quick check at the price of a one-way CCU-DEL-YYZ-YWG ticket was about CAD2000! Time to think out of the box. My Aeroplan miles came handy on this occasion. With CAD 320 and 70,000 Aeroplan miles, I could get a ticket like this:

Oct 15 2021
CCU- BOM: UK 774 Aircraft Airbus 320 neo 2030- 2315
BOM- LHR: AI 131 Boeing 787-800 0630+1- 1130

One night in London
Oct 17 2021
LHR- YUL: AC 865 Aircraft Airbus 330-300 1305- 1505
YUL- YWG: AC 8595 Aircraft MRJ-900 1855 2054


At that time Maharastra was asking for a negative RT-PCR test results if someone is not fully vaccinated. A smart agent from Vistara assured me that I don’t need one since I am fully vaccinated albeit from Canada. I didn’t want to take a chance so I went ahead and got a RT-PCR (INR 950) done anyway. This time I was little worried about the outcome since I showed no restraint while mingling with family members, relatives and even with general puja time shopping crowd. But the result came negative, I guess my Pfizer vaccine is doing its job efficiently.

Again I had to fil up a Passenger Locator form for UK. This time I was identified as “Status: Non-red list and vaccine status: Declared full/exempt”. I had to book a Day 2 covid test (GBP39) in the UK even if I am not going to be there for more than one night. Also I had to book and pay for another “same day result RT-PCR test” (GBP139) to be done in the UK so that I can use that to come back to Canada. Canada wants a negative RT-PCR test done before the last direct non-stop flight to Canada.

Vistara flight was commandeered by Capt. Mandeep Kaur. Vistara and Air India operate from the same terminal in BOM. Checked in for LHR again as Vistara could only check me till BOM.
AI 131 was 95% full, quite a few passengers (of Indian origin) was connecting from GOI and they had Portuguese passports. Again the same drill, middle seat passengers were given full PPE robe. Security was pretty strong. Captain for this flight was Ruchi Khandelwal. Two consecutive flights captained by female pilots! It made me feel immensely proud being an Indian!
India a country of contradictions to say the least, on one side some communities selectively abort female fetus and on the other side you happen to be piloted by two female captains within a short span of time. Did I ever experienced this in North America?

Landed in London on time and straight ran to a pop-up clinic near Heathrow for my RT-PCR test. They confirmed that the results will be emailed to me by midnight.

Result did arrive in my inbox at 11.50PM! Quickly uploaded the information in “ArriveCan”, an app you have to fill in before board a plane to Canada. Rest of the trip was uneventful. On landing at YUL a quick check of your documents and you are in.
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Last edited by PAL@YWG on Tue Nov 02, 2021 12:58 am; edited 1 time in total
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sabya99
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Joined: 19 Dec 2011
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Location: New Jersey/CCU

PostPosted: Mon Nov 01, 2021 1:06 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think this is the first Pandemic associated trip report in the forum, very nicely written clearly describing all the pit falls and describing possible troubles ahead. In fact, you should write some more about LHR-CCU segment and pax. loads. After reading this trip report I am getting encouraged to visit India next year. One last point OCI card is of much use to all desi folks.
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luvleen
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Joined: 02 Jul 2012
Posts: 179
Location: Bombay

PostPosted: Tue Nov 02, 2021 4:17 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quick question (perhaps one of the other members can also help answer) - My parents (indian nationals) want to go to SFO to visit my sister. BA seemed to have the cheapest fares when I last checked, however they have displayed on their website "Indian nationals, regardless of foreign residency status, can only travel from India to the UK, Ireland and Cayman Islands and must hold a valid visa. India nationals cannot travel further to any other countries, unless their spouse is a foreign national or they are a seaman travelling with authorised documentation from the Ministry of Shipping. You will not be allowed to board your flight if you do not meet these requirements."
My question is - with the current India-UK bubble agreement, does this still hold true that Indians can't use LHR as a transit point to the US? Did you see any Indian national being turned back at CCU because of this technicality?
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PAL@YWG
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Joined: 22 Dec 2006
Posts: 438
Location: YWG, Canada

PostPosted: Tue Nov 02, 2021 9:54 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

luvleen wrote:
Quick question (perhaps one of the other members can also help answer) - My parents (indian nationals) want to go to SFO to visit my sister. BA seemed to have the cheapest fares when I last checked, however they have displayed on their website "Indian nationals, regardless of foreign residency status, can only travel from India to the UK, Ireland and Cayman Islands and must hold a valid visa. India nationals cannot travel further to any other countries, unless their spouse is a foreign national or they are a seaman travelling with authorised documentation from the Ministry of Shipping. You will not be allowed to board your flight if you do not meet these requirements."
My question is - with the current India-UK bubble agreement, does this still hold true that Indians can't use LHR as a transit point to the US? Did you see any Indian national being turned back at CCU because of this technicality?


Hi Luvleen, unfortunately BA can't take them beyond the British Isles. Air bubble agreements between countries pretty much dictate how someone can reach a destination. For them best bet would be direct non-stop flights to the USA.
My flight BOM-LHR did follow the same rule. Asked one of those Portuguese passport holders (of Indian origin) where he is going, he said to LIS but with a separate ticket for LHR- LIS.
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iah87
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 03, 2021 7:15 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

luvleen wrote:
Quick question (perhaps one of the other members can also help answer) - My parents (indian nationals) want to go to SFO to visit my sister. BA seemed to have the cheapest fares when I last checked, however they have displayed on their website "Indian nationals, regardless of foreign residency status, can only travel from India to the UK, Ireland and Cayman Islands and must hold a valid visa. India nationals cannot travel further to any other countries, unless their spouse is a foreign national or they are a seaman travelling with authorised documentation from the Ministry of Shipping. You will not be allowed to board your flight if you do not meet these requirements."
My question is - with the current India-UK bubble agreement, does this still hold true that Indians can't use LHR as a transit point to the US? Did you see any Indian national being turned back at CCU because of this technicality?


If they can wait till Nov 15th, I believe most if not all restrictions will be lifted. Also I dont know if BA or India is enforcing the bubble restrictions strictly, however you cannot take that chance. LH, KL, AF and other airlines are permitting transits.
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luvleen
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PostPosted: Thu Nov 04, 2021 7:11 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks guys for your responses! Their trip is to be scheduled for 1st week of Dec - and from what I see, might just put them onboard QR/LH/KL
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PAL@YWG
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Joined: 22 Dec 2006
Posts: 438
Location: YWG, Canada

PostPosted: Fri Nov 05, 2021 12:22 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

sabya99 wrote:
I think this is the first Pandemic associated trip report in the forum, very nicely written clearly describing all the pit falls and describing possible troubles ahead. In fact, you should write some more about LHR-CCU segment and pax. loads. After reading this trip report I am getting encouraged to visit India next year. One last point OCI card is of much use to all desi folks.


Sabya, CCU- LHR flight is going to run till March 31 2022 at least. This is the best chance for AI to have some traction and establish this route especially when air bubble agreements helping them to avoid competition temporarily.

My flight (AI 164) flew over Iran, skirted Afghanistan as no airline is overflying that piece of land currently. It took 9.5 hours to reach CCU, that is reasonable. But lately I am observing on FR24.com that AI 163 (CCU- LHR) is taking a different route altogether. It's flying over a great length of Pamir mountain range (north of DEL) and then onto Tajik, Kazakh and Russian airspace. FR24 showing flying time around 14.5 hours to reach LHR. If this continues, the route will not survive Sad !
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sabya99
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PostPosted: Sat Nov 06, 2021 6:28 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Mr.Pal you are correct. Flightaware.com showing both these flight paths. The path over Pamir mountain is dangerous and it is over Durand line (eastern point),Tajik republic and Kazakh/Russian airspace. No information about which one is for a given day. I wonder is Pak/Iran airspace that crowded? Or no body cares for Kolkata folks!
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iah87
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PostPosted: Sat Nov 13, 2021 2:48 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

PAL@YWG wrote:
sabya99 wrote:
I think this is the first Pandemic associated trip report in the forum, very nicely written clearly describing all the pit falls and describing possible troubles ahead. In fact, you should write some more about LHR-CCU segment and pax. loads. After reading this trip report I am getting encouraged to visit India next year. One last point OCI card is of much use to all desi folks.


Sabya, CCU- LHR flight is going to run till March 31 2022 at least. This is the best chance for AI to have some traction and establish this route especially when air bubble agreements helping them to avoid competition temporarily.

My flight (AI 164) flew over Iran, skirted Afghanistan as no airline is overflying that piece of land currently. It took 9.5 hours to reach CCU, that is reasonable. But lately I am observing on FR24.com that AI 163 (CCU- LHR) is taking a different route altogether. It's flying over a great length of Pamir mountain range (north of DEL) and then onto Tajik, Kazakh and Russian airspace. FR24 showing flying time around 14.5 hours to reach LHR. If this continues, the route will not survive Sad !


Does that mean the flight is arriving late every time (exceeding the block time) and also requires more fuel.

AI (soon Tata) better standardize the LHR-CCU route as this route has no competition whatsoever (just like LHR-AMD). If the route holds, they can increase to 2x weekly (probably a minimum for long term survival), it could be a nice money maker especially if they can get some codeshares out of LHR to other cities.
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PAL@YWG
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PostPosted: Mon Nov 15, 2021 9:06 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

iah87 wrote:
PAL@YWG wrote:
sabya99 wrote:
I think this is the first Pandemic associated trip report in the forum, very nicely written clearly describing all the pit falls and describing possible troubles ahead. In fact, you should write some more about LHR-CCU segment and pax. loads. After reading this trip report I am getting encouraged to visit India next year. One last point OCI card is of much use to all desi folks.


Sabya, CCU- LHR flight is going to run till March 31 2022 at least. This is the best chance for AI to have some traction and establish this route especially when air bubble agreements helping them to avoid competition temporarily.

My flight (AI 164) flew over Iran, skirted Afghanistan as no airline is overflying that piece of land currently. It took 9.5 hours to reach CCU, that is reasonable. But lately I am observing on FR24.com that AI 163 (CCU- LHR) is taking a different route altogether. It's flying over a great length of Pamir mountain range (north of DEL) and then onto Tajik, Kazakh and Russian airspace. FR24 showing flying time around 14.5 hours to reach LHR. If this continues, the route will not survive Sad !


Does that mean the flight is arriving late every time (exceeding the block time) and also requires more fuel.

AI (soon Tata) better standardize the LHR-CCU route as this route has no competition whatsoever (just like LHR-AMD). If the route holds, they can increase to 2x weekly (probably a minimum for long term survival), it could be a nice money maker especially if they can get some codeshares out of LHR to other cities.


I was following AI 163/164 for quite a while on FR24.com. For few weeks AI163 was taking 14+ hours to reach LHR. One would assume that definitely involved a refueling stop somewhere. But for last couple of weeks it seems that actual flying time is pretty close to block time.

With other star alliance member feeds coming in (at least AC is offering flights to CCU from any point in Canada where LHR-CCU- LHR is AI 164/163), I am hopeful this route should survive unless Tata management thinks otherwise.
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sabya99
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 16, 2021 6:01 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Could someone comment on international west bound air connectivity from Kolkata after Tatababu takes full control of Air India! There are three possibility: it may remain the same as today; it may completely vanish and be replaced by international connector flights as AI running these days or a few long distance flights (may be multistep flight) to Europe. If Tata group ignores Kolkata the way MCA babus have done in last few decades then city of Kolkata will have no place in world aviation business in our lifetime.
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