Coronavirus: First Indian repatriation flights leave Dubai and Abu Dhabi

A charter flight from Abu Dhabi to Kochi left just after 5pm and a second from Dubai to Calicut at 5.45pm

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The first repatriation flights to India left Dubai and Abu Dhabi on Thursday carrying hundreds of tourists and expats home.

An Air India Express plane from Abu Dhabi to Kochi left just after 5pm and a second from Dubai to Calicut departed at 5.45pm.

About 350 Indian citizens on a priority list arrived at the airports for flights home.

Tourists who were stranded when both countries closed their borders in March and Indian residents who wished to return home, some due to job losses, were among them.

First Indian repatriation flights leave Dubai and Abu Dhabi

First Indian repatriation flights leave Dubai and Abu Dhabi
It has been tough living inside the airport for nearly two months. I haven't been outside in the fresh air this whole time

The flights were the first of 10 services between the Emirates and India over the next week. At Dubai airport's Terminal 2, passengers waited in spaced out queues to be checked in.

Benson Andrew, 48, said he was “ecstatic” when he received his ticket home to India on Wednesday evening.

He has been stuck in the airport's transit area since March 19, unable to pass through the UAE border or return to India.

"I arrived on a transit flight from Lisbon but was unable to make my onward journey to India because of the flight ban," he told The National.

“Today marks my 50th day in the airport."

Mr Andrew was working as a supermarket cashier in Portugal when the Covid-19 outbreak disrupted travel and business across the globe.

He made the decision to travel home to India to be with family, but landed in Dubai to change planes just as the UAE closed its borders.

He was one of about 20 Indian citizens left in legal limbo at Dubai International Airport. They spent days sleeping on chairs before accommodation inside the airport was provided.

“I’ll be boarding the IX 344 Air India Express flight at 5pm and I couldn’t be happier,” he said.

“It has been months since I have seen my family and it has been tough living inside the airport for nearly two months. I haven’t been outside in the fresh air this whole time.”

The Indian Embassy in the UAE said more than 200,000 residents have requested flights home. Officials were on hand at the airport to help citizens preparing to return home.

Medical staff tested every passenger before they boarded their flights. Those showing symptoms of the virus would be denied permission to fly.

Shafeeq Nedumba, 29, who was stood outside Terminal 2 on Thursday, had been hopeful of a ticket home.

Although he had registered his name with the Indian Embassy for a repatriation flight, he said he was not permitted to fly.

However, his pregnant wife, Najiya Shafeeq, 21, had a ticket in hand for the 5pm flight to Kerala.

"She actually received a call from Air India Express last night and they said there was a seat available for her today," he told The National. 

“We had to pay Dh730 for the ticket but we are just thankful she is able to fly home.

“She is four months pregnant and needs to be closer to her doctors so she was listed as a priority."

Ms Shafeeq travelled to the UAE on March 1 to visit her husband who has been working in Dubai as a sales executive for three years.

She was due to fly home to India in late April but her original flight was canceled due to the UAE border closures.

Relatives wave farewell to friends and family at Dubai airport's Terminal 2 on Thursday afternoon. Some passengers were only told they had a ticket on Wednesday night. Pawan Singh / The National
Relatives wave farewell to friends and family at Dubai airport's Terminal 2 on Thursday afternoon. Some passengers were only told they had a ticket on Wednesday night. Pawan Singh / The National

“In one way it is a big relief that she gets to fly home today but she is flying alone,” Mr Nedumba said.

“I wanted to get a flight with her but I was not listed as a priority passenger.

“I just recently lost my job because of the crisis so I want to go back to India as soon as possible.”

Indian expat Arun George, 30, was in the same situation.

He had an emotional farewell with his wife and two-year-old son at the terminal entrance, hours before they were due to board the flight to Kochi in Kerala.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , May 7 – 2020 :- Relatives and friends of Indian passengers outside the Departure gate of Terminal 2 as India is on the largest repatriation mission amid the Covid-19 pandemic with flights taking off from Abu Dhabi and Dubai on Thursday. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News/Standalone/Online/Stock/Instagram Story by Kelly
Relatives and friends of passengers outside Terminal 2 as India begins repatriation flights. Pawan Singh / The National

“My wife got approval to fly because she is eight months pregnant,” Mr George said.

“We got a call from the Embassy on Tuesday to say she had been shortlisted for the flight and then yesterday evening they called again to say it was confirmed.

“Thankfully, our doctor in Sharjah carried out a medical check up and issued her an approval letter to fly as she is in the late stages of pregnancy.”

Although it was a bitter sweet moment waving his wife and son off, Mr George said he was “thankful to the UAE government and Indian Embassy” for arranging the repatriation flights for passengers.

I was not able to enter the airport with her so we said our farewells at the door

“I was not able to enter the airport with her so we said our farewells at the door,” he said.

“We decided it would be safer for our baby to be delivered back home in India because our family is there to support her.

“My wife just resigned from her job in Sharjah yesterday after she was confirmed to fly home.”

The couple and their small child have been living in the UAE since 2012.

An operations room was set up by embassy officials to help arrange the remaining eight special charter flights in the next week, with the help of Air India staff.