INDIANS from the millions-strong expat community in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), stranded in their homeland during a catastrophic coronavirus surge, are swamping private jet operators with requests to whisk them back to safety.
Fearing a prolonged flight ban between India and the Gulf state, they aim to use an exemption for private business planes that was in effect last year during the first wave of the global crisis.
An estimated 3.5 million Indians live and work in the UAE.
The latest suspension of flights that came into force on Sunday has shut down some 300 commercial flights that operated weekly on one of the world’s busiest air corridors.
Apart from low-paid labourers on short-term contracts, the sudden move has stranded members of long-settled wealthy families who travelled to India for holidays, work or medical emergencies.
India on Thursday added 379 257 cases and 3 645 deaths – the highest since the start of the pandemic. The world’s second-most infected nation has recorded almost 18.4 million cases so far, with nearly 205 000 dead.
T Patel, a businessman living in Dubai, is working frantically to bring back his brother’s wife and three children, currently stuck in Bengaluru.
“I am exploring the private jet option. It is a lot of money but if I have no other way of bringing them back, then I will go for it,” he said.
After the UAE shut its airspace to curb the spread of coronavirus in March last year, some residents raised the funds for seats on shared chartered planes that were permitted to fly to Dubai. Patel paid $10 500 to get his parents and niece to Dubai, nearly 20 times the cost of regular tickets.
“I waited for two months and finally hired a private jet for $42 000, the cost of which was shared by a few equally desperate residents,” he said.
Dozens of charter flights zipped passengers from India to Dubai in the days before the new ban, after all, commercial seats were snapped up, and charter companies say demand has since surged. A 13-seat jet flying from Mumbai to Dubai costs between $35 000 and $38 000, nearly 35 times the price of a regular ticket. Prices from other cities are even higher.
But as demand soars, operators have been scrambling to clarify rules around private planes landing in the UAE.
“Chartered flights need to get approval from the General Civil Aviation Authority and the foreign ministry to operate. But we do not know who is exempted to travel,” said Tapish Khivensra, CEO of Enthral Aviation Private Jet Charter.
Civil aviation has said UAE nationals, diplomats, official delegations and “businessmen’s planes” are excluded from the ban, provided passengers observe measures including a 10-day quarantine.
Long-term Dubai resident Purushothaman Nair said he was prepared to “spend a fortune” to return to the UAE.
“My wife and I came to India for just 10 days. We have to fly back to Dubai at any cost,” he told AFP news agency.
“There are many people who are willing to pay up. How can people with business interests and big responsibilities in the UAE afford to stay away for a longer period?” said Nair, who works in the government sector.
“The fear of contracting the virus is a bigger worry.”
The less well-off are weighing the high cost against the risk of losing their livelihoods.
“If I cannot make it in a few weeks, my job is on the line. My employer is already putting pressure on me and asking me to travel to the UAE via other countries,” Jameel Mohammed told AFP.
Mohammed had not seen his young son for two years when he was granted leave in March.
He was thrilled at the prospect of a reunion but is now stranded in the southern state of Kerala.
“I can’t afford that kind of money. But if the choice is between losing my job and borrowing money, I will do the latter and fly back.” — Al Jazeera