As I checked in for one of the first flights in India in two months, the baggage-tag dispenser spat out five boarding passes for me. Given the morning I'd had, this latest glitch wasn't much of a surprise.
Earlier, I'd received a call around 1 a.m. from IndiGo to say my Monday flight from New Delhi to Mumbai was cancelled. That's it. No explanation. Turns out it was one of at least 80 flights cancelled from the Indian capital on the day aircraft in the country was supposed to return to the skies after a lengthy lockdown. Nobody I spoke to seemed to know what was happening, who needed to go into quarantine, or if planes would even be allowed to land at their destination. People were unsure if their tickets were of any use at all.
I had to come up with another plan to get to Mumbai and then on to see my family for the first time in two months. We had suddenly found ourselves stranded apart because of the nationwide lockdown. I'd booked my ticket the moment rules were relaxed to allow some domestic flights. From Mumbai, I planned to travel to a village where my kids have been staying with their grandparents and my husband since the government ordered everyone not to leave wherever they were in late March because of the coronavirus.
Some confusion was inevitable given how the Indian government abruptly announced last week that domestic flights would resume in a matter of days. It's not the first time Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shocked the system with sudden decrees, including imposing the lockdown with just a few hours notice in March. Another example: the surprise removal of high-value banknotes from circulation in 2016.
Airlines were only alerted to the plan to restart flights five days ago, giving them little time to arrange matters like staff deployment and protective gear. And some states issued their own directives: Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal extended flight bans, while Assam and Karnataka require arrivals to undergo two weeks of quarantine.
"The whole thing has happened in a very messy fashion," Sudhakar Reddy, president of Air Passengers Association of India, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. "They seem to have not consulted the states. So each state has come up with different regulations, and many flights were cancelled early morning today."
Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said on Twitter late Sunday night that there'd been "hard negotiations" with state governments. India has nearly 145 000 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections and over 4 100 deaths.
After my IndiGo flight was cancelled, I considered booking a ticket for another day and then taking a car to the village. You need a government permit for that, with details on the driver and vehicle. The permit is only valid for one day, so I'd have to do the red-tape rigmarole all over again. No thanks. Taking the train wasn't really a viable option either given health and safety concerns.
Thankfully, I managed to buy a ticket on Vistara, the local affiliate of Singapore Airlines, for another flight on Monday. Going through security, you hold your boarding pass to a screen and a guard looks at it from the other side. At this point, you need to lift your mask so your identity can be verified. An attendant stood nearby, dressed in a full hazmat suit.
Delhi's airport, operated by GMR Infrastructure, seemed well-equipped and shops and cafes were open. There were some problems, including the overzealous baggage-tag dispenser. There was another issue at check-in, as I needed to pay for five kilograms of excess baggage, but the airline wouldn't take cash or credit cards. To transfer the money, I had to download a government payment app, which has been beset by privacy concerns.
We boarded on time and were all given face shields. The cabin crew wore full protective gear. I'm usually a relaxed flier, but my nerves were jangling. The flight was virtually empty, with just 22 passengers on an Airbus SE A320neo jet that can seat more than 150. I had an entire row to myself - some good news at last.
There were 532 flights in total in India on Monday, according to Puri, each carrying an average of about 70 passengers.
There were no meals served on my two-hour journey, just water available in the galleys. After landing, I got a stamp on my hand as I left the airport, marking me down for a week of quarantine. The village administration wants me to extend that by another week, which I intend to do. At least my family will be around.