Dozens of people who returned to the UAE on private jets after more than three months in India said the expensive flight was worth it to be reunited with their families.
Desperate to see their loved ones again and resume their jobs in the Emirates, Indian citizens dug deep into their savings to pay for charter flights.
Regular passenger services between the two nations have not yet resumed, especially from badly affected cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai.
Mudassir Ali, 40, was one of 13 travellers who paid about Dh10,500 each to travel from Mumbai to Dubai on Saturday.
“I was dying every day knowing my wife and daughter had to manage everything alone,” the Dubai resident, 40, said.
“The pandemic has left everyone in the world in shock, people are losing their life, their jobs. It is a scary time and I just wanted to make it back to my family.”
To return, he first had to convince a group of strangers to chip in for the Dh135,000 needed to charter a plane.
It took about a week, many phone calls and detailed co-ordination before people from different corners of India, including Bangalore, Hyderabad, New Delhi, Patna and Mumbai boarded the weekend flight.
“People had to be willing to trust each other and we divided the work of handling the finance, documentation and passport details,” Mr Ali said.
“Many were interested but many also dropped out. We had to get people to believe that this was genuine and our objective was to get back to the UAE.
“By the time we got on the flight, each one had become a family member. It was overwhelming – I had tears in my eyes because these people trusted me.”
When a private jet is hired, the person who makes the booking must pay the full fare directly to the aviation company. Travellers split the cost between the group.
Zara Syed, Mr Ali’s wife, said managing their daughter, 3, alone was a challenge during the stay-at-home restrictions.
“It’s a lot of money but to have him come back to us and his job was important,” she said. “Until the last minute when everyone got on the plane, we were worried because we were unsure about internal flights in India, travel delays and quarantine rules between states.”
Passengers on private jets are asked to submit copies of their passports, visas, Emirates ID cards and “fit-to-board” medical certificates.
They must also download the Aarogya Setu and Al Hosn apps launched by the Indian and Emirati governments to help with contact tracing.
Once passengers land, they must confirm they can quarantine in a room with an en suite bathroom, away from others, and that they do not have elderly relatives at home. UAE residents stuck abroad must apply for approval to return by contacting the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs or the Federal Authority for Identity and Citizenship.
Thousands are part of Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram groups that share information about returning to the UAE.
Indian and Emirati authorities suspended international flights in late March. About 90,000 people will arrive in India from the UAE by the end of the month on chartered flights and through a government-led Vande Bharat, or Salute India, Mission. There have been no repatriation services in the opposite direction.
Neeti Rodrigues, 44, arrived in Dubai on a similar charter service on Monday night after paying the Dh10,500 fare. “I had tears when we landed,” said Ms Rodrigues.
“I have told people on both sides not to celebrate until I actually reach home."
Ms Rodrigues, who works in technology, had been stuck in Mumbai since March 19, the day the UAE closed its borders.
She had flown there to visit her terminally ill mother, who died of cancer the next day.
Ms Rodrigues has an 11-year-old daughter with an intellectual disability who was being cared for by her husband and teenage son in Dubai.
The flight to Dubai was organised by another family stuck in India. “I could not wait any longer to get back,” she said.
“I knew that the charter ticket cost would be high but I have no choice. It is a heavy price but I didn’t know when the next flight would leave India or whether I could get on the next group.”
Another Dubai resident travelled on a charter flight from New Delhi last week with his wife and child. “I needed to return because there was no end in sight,” the man, 37, said.
He had travelled to India for a family emergency. “I was never prepared for such an extended stay in India. We were very disoriented when we were in India and were equally disoriented to get back here.”
AAn Empire Aviation Group official said the company used 13-seater planes to bring in passengers from India.
“We can operate only when we get approvals from both the UAE and Indian authorities,” she said.
“The passengers must have relevant documents to clear immigration. The regulations for each country are different.”
The Dubai company deals with business and leisure travel on small jets and handles aircraft sales, management, flight planning and ground transport for charter customers. “We are not a seat-sale company. A customer books the whole aircraft.
“All relevant paperwork must be in place or we cannot accept a trip,” the woman said.
Chartering a flight from India typically costs $6,500 to $9,000 (Dh23,874 to Dh33,057) per flying hour, depending on the aircraft type.
Scott Glenn, the group’s sales director, said charter flights had mostly taken people to and from India and GCC countries during the pandemic.
He said the group had run several private jet missions, including emergency medical and repatriation flights.