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 travel from India to the US and back in September 2020.
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 are 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 passport holders and OCIs (Overseas Citizen of India) card holders, and foreign passport holders with certain types of visas only can fly on these flights. NOTE: ALL TOURIST VISAS HAVE BEEN CANCELLED BY INDIA. DO NOT TRAVEL ON A TOURIST VISA, YOU WILL BE SENT BACK FROM THE AIRPORT ON THE NEXT FLIGHT! Check with your closest Indian High Commission for which visas are permitted, and how to apply.
- Note though that while air bubble flights are equally open to Indian citizens and to foreign passport holders with acceptable India visas, 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.
- The approval process for “Air bubble” flights is:
- In general, you do NOT need IHC approval for air bubble flights. That is a stated benefit of air bubble agreements. HOWEVER you still need approval from the Indian High Commission in Germany if you are flying Lufthansa’s air bubble flights, Lufthansa wil send an email with details a few days prior to the flight. It is not clear why this special requirement just for Lufthansa, and repeated attempts to get an answer from Lufthansa, the Indian High Commission in Germany, and the Ministry of Civil Aviation have not borne fruit – they are just silent when asked. It would be good if they had a channel that responded to such questions.
- 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
- Once again: 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 see this link 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 on direct flights 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 a 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 through 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 men on the top right of the home page). This form must be filled prior to departure, ideally at least 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 (7 days institutional and 7 days home) unless you have an exemption, If you qualify for Exemption, you do not need to do quarantine anymore in India – you just have to self-monitor.
For VBM and Lufthansa flights only – you will also have to register with 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 a RT-PCR COVID nasal swab test (and NOT a Rapid or antigen test) within 72 hours (3 days) of departure of your flight to India. If you are a foreign passport / OCI card holder and are taking a flight via a connecting point, say New York to Delhi via London, it has to be within 72 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 RT-PCR test as early as possible, but not more than 72 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 at least 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.
- MY ADVICE IS TO MINIMIZE OR AVOID EATING AND DRINKING ON THE FLIGHT. This is because there is no social distancing, and masks are off when eating and drinking. While flying with masks on is safe, eating and drinking on board, in my opinion, is a safety loophole and an avoidable risk as there may be asymptomatic carriers around you. Eat and drink before and after the flight, and only eat or drink for minimum sustenance on flights, preferably when your neighbors are masked. Do not remove your mask when others nearby are eating or drinking!
That’s it for now. Hope this is helpful! Note these guidelines are to the best of my knowledge and information, basis inputs from recent travellers and from others in the industry, 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).