by Sanjiv Kapoor
Former COO, Spicejet and former CSCO of Vistara
I keep getting questions on testing and quarantine requirements for those returning to India on the scheduled “air bubble” flights from places like the US, UK, EU, and UAE, as well as on the special ad-hoc “Vande Bharat Mission” or VBM flights that operate from time to time from other places such as Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Central Asia, etc. to India.
People are also unsure how to book these flights, who can travel on which flights, and whether any kind of approval or registration is required from the Indian High Commission (IHC) to be able to travel to India. Here is an attempt to create a simple guide for all those looking to travel to India on these flights, in the form of a Q&A.
This guide draws from various sources of information (government, airlines, travel agents, first-hand experience of passengers), and as well from my recent travel from India to the US and back last month.
Q1: What is the difference between “air bubble” and VBM flights?
Air bubbles are special bilateral agreements between countries to allow a certain mutually agreed number of scheduled flights to operate between the countries, flown by airlines from those countries. These flights are on a specially approved and published schedule and can be viewed and booked through the airline website, app, and traditional and online travel agents just like normal flights in the pre-COVID era. There are no reports of any issues in booking these flights through any of the channels, it seems to work just as well as in the pre-COVID days.
VBM flights, in contrast, are not on a recurring schedule. They are special one-off or ad-hoc flights arranged by the Indian government and mostly operated by Air India or Air India Express, though other Indian carriers also are allocated some VBM flights to operate from time to time. Information on these flights is usually published by the airlines on their website and on social media, and also usually circulated by the Indian High Commission and agents in the countries from which these flights will be operating.
These flights can also be bought through all direct and indirect channels, though reports indicate Air India flights tend to sell-out on their direct channels (website or app) within minutes but are still usually available through some travel agents, sometimes at illegally inflated fares.
Q2: Who can travel to India on the air-bubble or VBM flights?
- Indian citizens / passport holders, Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) cardholders, and foreign citizens with eligible Indian visas can fly on these flights.
- Note though that while air bubble flights are equally open to Indian citizens and to foreign passport holders with acceptable India visas and need no approval to book or fly. VBM flights are primarily for Indian passport holders and OCIs who are stranded and need approval from the appropriate Indian High Commission (IHC) before you can fly on them.
- The approval process for VBM flights is:
- You book your VBM flight
- You include your booking details in your online or email application to the IHC (please contact your closest IHC or your VBM airline for specific details on how to apply)
- You wait for their approval email and carry that with you.
- You do NOT need IHC approval for air bubble flights. You just book and fly (with some forms that need to be filled online prior to your flight, details later in this guide) like in pre-COVID days, subject of course to having the right visa and travel documents
- Foreign passport holders who are not OCIs need to check on the new or modified visa requirements and restrictions that India has in place for that country. The Indian High Commission in the departing country is the best source of information. You can also visit this site for more details.
Q3: Are there any restrictions on who can fly which airline?
- For the VBM flights, there is no choice of airlines. If you are eligible and approved to fly, you fly.
- For the “air bubble” flights, technically as per the agreements for flights into India, airlines may carry Indian passport holders only from their home base country / visa region to India. So United only from the US, BA or Virgin only from the UK, Lufthansa only from Germany and the EU, Emirates only from the UAE, etc. There is no restriction on foreign passport holders however on the air bubble flights– they can fly a connecting airline to India, for example they can fly from the US to India on an European or Middle-Eastern bubble carrier with no issues.
- In practice however there is no way to monitor or enforce this connecting flights restriction for Indian passport holders for flights into India, and the rules have been framed in a somewhat fuzzy manner resulting in different interpretations depending on which airline you talk to. Therefore, some airlines are taking Indian passport holders on connecting flights too, for example from the US or Australia to India on BA or Virgin or Lufthansa or Emirates via connections though their hubs, while others are not. Check with your airline.
- Note for flights out of India, the restriction is being enforced – so for example Virgin or Lufthansa cannot fly Indian passport holders on connecting flights beyond the UK or the EU respectively, even if you have a ticket for it. You will be turned away when you come to the airport to check-in. People have been turned away, so please be aware.
- Foreign passport holders have no such restrictions and can take for example BA or Virgin or Lufthansa or Emirates flights to countries and continents beyond the UK, EU, and UAE.
- These complicated rules and restrictions are peculiar to India and have apparently been imposed with the view travellers between two countries and regions should only fly the “home” airline of the countries on either end of the bubble. So Indian passport holders should fly on Air India or United, for example, between the US and India, and not on airlines belonging to a third country.
- Countries on the other end of the bubble (the US, for example) are however not limiting what airline or routing their citizens travel on. I am also not aware of any other major country with such complex requirements and restrictions on which airlines and routings their citizens can fly, and this is something than can benefit from some relaxation and simplification for Indians too.
Q4: What are the various forms I need to complete prior to the flight?
The one form that must be completed online prior to departure for all flights to India, whether air bubble or VBM, is the “Air Suvidha Self Reporting Form” that is on www.newdelhiairport.in (see image below, you can select the form through the drop-down menu on the top right of the home page). This form must be filled prior to departure, ideally not less than 72 hours prior to departure. You will receive an acknowledgement / approval for travel within a few hours.
Note that though the form is hosted by newdelhiairport.in (who have presumably volunteered to administer this process for all arrivals), this form is to be completed for all India arrivals into any Indian point of entry, not just for New Delhi arrivals. This is at times a source of confusion, and indeed it would be clearer if the forms were hosted on a neutral site, say airsuvidha.com, or on the Ministry of Aviation’s own website.
A second form that you may have to fill prior to your departure for India is the “Apply for Exemption” form, which is required ONLY IF you are applying for exemption from institutional quarantine. Note that all passengers have to do 14 days quarantine upon entry into India. Unless you have an exemption, the first 7 days has to be at a quarantine location or hotel approved by the Indian government, and it is at your cost. The second 7 days is home quarantine. However, if you qualify for Exemption, you can spend all 14 days in home quarantine and avoid institutional or hotel quarantine. It is important to note that NO ONE gets exempt from quarantine altogether – 14 days quarantine is a must for all!
For VBM flights only – you will also have to get approval from the India High Commission (IHC) to travel, as described earlier
Q5: Who qualifies for exemption from institutional quarantine?
The most common exemption is from taking an RT-PCR COVID test (and not an antigen test) within 96 hours (4 days) of departure of your flight to India. If you are taking a flight via a connecting point, say New York to Delhi via London, it has to be within 96 hours prior to departure of your London – Delhi flight, and not your New York – London flight. Exemptions can also be requested for pregnant women, medical emergencies, etc.- see the Exemption link on the website for details.
You can also choose to do a COVID test upon arrival at Mumbai or Delhi airport, in which case you do not fill the exemption form in advance. You just have to take the test upon arrival and follow instructions from airport staff thereafter.
So, to summarize, assuming you intend to take an RT-PCR test prior to departure, you should:
- Take the test as early as possible, but not more than 96 hours prior to your departure, from a place that can give you your test results within 24 hours (ideally) and 48 hours (maximum).
- Complete the Self Reporting Form also 96 hours prior to departure (do not wait for 72 hours before departure). You will get an acknowledgement within hours.
- As soon as your test result is in (and assuming your test is negative for COVID), complete the Apply for Exemption form where you will be required to upload your test results. Even if the result comes in less than 72 hours before departure, apply for Exemption as soon as you get your results.
- You should get the response (Approved / Not Approved) within 24 hours
- Print out the responses to both applications and carry them with you, and also have them handy on your phone.
- If your Exemption application is rejected though your RT-PCR test was negative, you can re-apply with additional documentation or explanation and hope for the best. If still rejected, you can show the COVID negative report on arrival and request exemption. If it is not accepted, you can do the RT-PCR test again upon arrival after baggage claim at Mumbai and Delhi airports.
- In addition, airlines may email you other forms to complete in advance – this is airline-specific. Ensure you complete these prior to your travel.
- Masks are required at all times at all airports in India and abroad, and while on the flight except when eating or drinking. In addition, some airlines will give you a face shield as well, though this is optional in most cases for foreign airlines. Full body PPE suits are not typically given or required, though they may be required for some VBM flights. Note than other than a mask, you do not need to carry any PPE with you – it will be provided if required at the gate or on-board.
- Apparently, Air India is giving the bare minimum to eat or drink even on the long non-stop US-India flights, and not providing pillows or blankets either. Foreign carriers and Vistara (which is operating London-Delhi and Dubai – India bubble flights) are providing more substantial food and beverage service, and well as blankets and in most cases, pillows. If you are flying Air India, please plan accordingly.
That’s it for now. Hope this is helpful! Note these guidelines are to the best of my knowledge and information, and basis my first had experience travelling to the US and back in September. But rules keep changing, so do check before you fly!
Sanjiv Kapoor is the former Chief Operating Officer of SpiceJet and former Chief Strategy and Commercial Officer of Vistara (Tata-SIA Airlines).