India will commence one of the world's largest air rescue operations from May 7, when Air India and its subsidiary Air India Express will start the first phase of the mission.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said "Pursuant to MHA announcement in which Civil Aviation is one of the modes to be deployed for evacuation of distressed stranded Indian citizens abroad & of those who are normally living abroad but want to return, Civil Aviation Ministry has drawn up a flight plan to facilitate the process."
Accordingly, these two airlines will operate 64-flights in 7 days to bring back 14,800 stranded Indians from 12 countries.
Puri added that "64 flights will operate in 1st week (7-13 May). 10 flights will operate from UAE, 2 from Qatar, 5 from Saudi Arabia, 7 from UK, 5 from Singapore, 7 from USA, 5 from Philippines, 7 from Bangladesh, 2 from Bahrain, 7 from Malaysia, 5 from Kuwait & 2 from Oman."
Overall, more than 190,000 Indian nationals, who would have to pay a one-way ferry service charge, are expected to be brought back in an airlift operation that might last couple of weeks or even more.
Puri said that "These evacuation services will be charged. States will implement all standard prescribed preventive measures & arrange for a paid 14-day mandatory quarantine for these passengers."
After the initial week, private players might also be allowed to participate in the operation.
However, only after proper medical screening at the departing airport will the passengers be allowed to board the aircraft.
After arriving in India, passengers would be subjected to a 14-day quarantine period for which they will be charged before being retested for the dreaded Covid-19 virus.
The magnitude of the operation can be gauged from the fact that massive quarantine infrastructure will have to be prepared well in advance by the state governments. In the first week, flights will bring back Indians to 10 states. Similar services to more states could be started in the coming weeks, depending upon the pace at which quarantine facilities are prepared to host these returnees.
Addressing the media on the upcoming rescue operation, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri via video conferencing on Tuesday pointed out that passengers would be required to pay a fixed amount for the ferry service. For instance, the one-way all-inclusive fare between Chicago to New Delhi will be charged at Rs 100,000, while that for Dhaka-Delhi at Rs 12,000 and Manila-Delhi at Rs 30,000.
He said the limited cost component made the operations viable. The minister said that during the first week of the mammoth air rescue operation, 14,800 Indian nationals will be brought back, while the total number of people to be repatriated back to India in the entire operation could be more than 190,000.
Puri said not only the role of the airline but that of airports and state governments is vital since these authorities have to manage the returning passengers. He said the financial position of Air India is precarious and that the airline requires injection of Rs 500-Rs 600 crore per month for it to stay afloat. Therefore, fares are being charged to make these operations viable.
Besides, the minister said that participation of private airlines in the air rescue plans will be taken after the first week of operations. Puri added that he is aware of the financial constraints being faced by the industry. However, he did not disclose any timeline for the resumption of domestic operations, but said that these will be opened only after seeing the "behaviour of the virus" and the ground level preparations to handle any situation.
Puri said "I want to reiterate that this is a limited operation which does not signal resumption of domestic & international civil aviation services. We will consider reopening the Indian skies only after the current lockdown. This will depend on the evolving situation on the ground."
Lately, despite its precarious financial position, the national passenger carrier has emerged as one of the few airlines in the world that have evacuated more than 9,000 passengers during the Covid-19 crisis.
The airline to date has carried out massive flight operations to China, Japan and Europe to bring back stranded Indians, mostly students and pilgrims. Additionally, the airline has been instrumental in repatriating foreigners to Israel, UK and Germany.
Moreover, Air India and its subsidiary Alliance Air has reached every corner of the country to supply essential medical equipment.