A number of Indians spent thousands of dollars on charter flights to Dubai to reunite with family and return to work amid commercial travel restrictions.
Doctors and businessmen who are UAE residents paid up to $5,400 (Dh20,000) each for seats on jets from Delhi and Mumbai.
The UAE announced the suspension of travel from April 24 for travellers and transit passengers from India after a deadly surge in Covid-19 cases there. The General Civil Aviation Authority has not said when normal services will resume.
Exempted passengers include UAE citizens, diplomats, those travelling on business planes and golden card residence visa holders.
Dr Pawan Agrawal, 41, was in Varanasi, northern India, for his father’s funeral and was distressed when the flight ban was extended beyond May 14.
"It has been very emotional. My dad died after three days of fever. I was consoling my mother and family, and had to keep checking if flights were opening up," said the critical care specialist.
When he discovered a Facebook group was planning to book a business charter flight, the doctor dipped into his savings.
'Everyone wants to get back to their jobs and family'
The cost for such a flight rose from about $3,300 (Dh12,000) to $5,400 after a new GCAA safety rule limiting passenger numbers aboard a business aircraft to eight from 13.
“Everyone had a common motto, they want to come to the UAE for their job and family,” he said.
“It’s a lot of money and many people cannot afford it because they have jobs that pay less. I was worried in case the flights don’t start for a few months and then my leave will be over and I would have to go on leave without pay."
Last year, people spent upwards of $37,000 to charter 13-seater private jets when incoming passenger flights to the Emirates were shut for more than three months.
Chartering a flight from India typically costs $6,500 to $9,000 per flying hour, depending on the aircraft type. The flight from Delhi to Dubai takes a little over four hours.
Dr Agrawal decided against stopping in Armenia or the Maldives and quarantining for 14 days because of changing travel bans. The Maldives later suspended entry for Indian visa holders.
Passengers follow strict rules to secure return to UAE
In line with GCAA rules, any person transported on a business aircraft must have a valid PCR test, comply with a 10-day quarantine period and complete a test on arrival, followed by two tests on days four and eight of quarantine.
An accredited laboratory must conduct the initial PCR test in India 48 hours before arriving in the UAE, and the certificate must contain a QR code.
“I didn’t take the route through Armenia because what if I tested positive there? I don’t know anyone in that country, so who would I turn to if I became symptomatic?” Dr Agrawal said.
“Then all routes would be closed. I could not go back to India nor could I come to the UAE.”
The doctor, who received both doses of the Sinopharm vaccine in January, was careful to wear a mask and use sanitiser, particularly in the crowded crematorium where his father was laid to rest.
“I worry about my mother who is struggling. I’m hoping that once the situation gets better in India I can get her here,” he said.
“I also understand it’s natural any country wants to protect itself from the new Covid strains.”
Other doctors returned on charter flights earlier this month.
Dr Rahul Gupta, 40, took 10 days off last month to care for his mother-in-law recovering from surgery.
The anesthesiologist was stuck for weeks in Agra, north India.
He found out about a 13-seater jet charter in early May, for which he paid $3,300 (Dh12,000).
Despite the strain, it was fortunate Dr Gupta was home when his mother-in-law contracted Covid-19, because a quick diagnosis got her admitted to hospital in time.
“I was very worried and got into depression because it’s not easy to get charter approvals,” he said.
“But it was a blessing in disguise I was there to care for my mother-in-law. It was all in God’s plan. I got her tested on day one because I realised the severity of the Covid she had developed. I was able to get her treated in hospital and she has recovered.”
Dr Rekha Singh, 33, a dentist, was in Gurgaon, near Delhi, to care for her parents.
The doctor hurt her back during her stay and could not access treatment because medical facilities were overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients.
“The hospitals were under too much pressure. I came back [to the UAE] on a wheelchair and got it scanned as soon as I returned,” she said.
“I’m thankful to be back and I hope the cases in India will come down soon.”
Jithin Hussain, general manager of Mida Travels, receives several calls a day from people keen to return.
His company has handled five business charters from Mumbai and Delhi.
“People think a lot before paying this amount," he said.
"This is usually for people who want to come back urgently. If people can work from home in India or their job is secure, we tell them to wait for the ban to be lifted."