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REPATRIATING OUT OF BANGALORE DURING COVID-19

Our experience flying out of BLR (India) into DFW (Dallas, Texas USA) on Air France special flights

*​This article is from my family’s experience on the Air France special repatriation flight on July 1, 2020. These times are uncertain, and I cannot promise things will be the same for future flights. I am writing this to hopefully give insight and peace of mind for those scheduled or considering these special flights.

 


OUR STORY


My family moved to Bangalore in August of 2018. My husband and I have one teen-aged daughter, a small dog Louis, and a cat Delilah. My husband’s contract ended amidst the COVID turmoil on June 30, 2020, and we exited India the very next day going to the USA. I heard so many rumors, was told so much incorrect information and worried so needlessly about so many things prior to our departure. I am hoping that by sharing my experience, I can offer other families some insight, and most importantly, some peace of mind.

 


BOOKING YOUR FLIGHT


 

As of July 4, international commercial flights in and out of Bangalore are suspended until July 31, if not later. With many jobs ending, families scheduled to move, and others choosing to evacuate India, booking flights really couldn’t be more complicated. Thankfully KLM/Air France has been doing twice a week flights (typically Mondays and Wednesdays) for several weeks. Finding out about the dates can be the trickiest part. I couldn’t find a listing online, and when I called into the Air France India office they couldn’t or wouldn’t give me the current list of possible dates. My family was blessed to have friends in the French and Dutch WhatsApp groups where this information was being shared. They would forward us these messages, and honestly, it made a world of difference. So in short, find someone in one of these groups or grab a beret or some wooden clogs and try to pass yourself off as a bonafide member 🙂

Tickets typically go on sale 7 days prior, though there have been instances of as many as 10 days and as few as four days. The departure time has consistently been around 1:00 AM. These are ​not​ considered commercial flights, and therefore travel agents cannot book these flights for you. Starting ten days before our target date of July 1 we would log onto the KLM and Air France ​Indian​ websites (you must go to the Indian sites as the other countries’ won’t list the flights) every hour and put in the basic info – date, number of tickets, starting point and destination. Another key thing to keep in mind here for Americans. I was told by the customer service representative that currently KLM/Air France is only flying into three airports in the US, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, Chicago O’Hare, and New York JFK. My family needed to get to Dallas, but they advised me to put in one of those three cities as my destination so that the search engine would offer all available flights.

Our company actually decided to go ahead and book the second and third legs of travel for us on the sister company Delta. So we had tickets from Paris to Dallas, via Atlanta, booked well in advance of the special flight tickets being released. We then only needed to search and find tickets from Bangalore to Paris. This was done because we were worried the flights from Paris would be sold out. In our case, this would not have been an issue as each of us had an entire row to ourselves on the flight from Paris to Atlanta.

Our tickets went on sale around 2 PM on June 23. I cannot speak to if this is the usual time or if that is just what happened that day.

 


THE BANGALORE AIRPORT


GETTING INSIDE  

Air France was not a lot of help in preparing for getting prepared for what lay in wait for travelers at the airport. A friend contacted a higher-up at Kempegowda and shared a document they have published called Passenger Journey​ which I can be found at this website. It is more of a reminder to keep distances and wear masks than anything.

Here are my tips, but PLEASE keep in mind I am basing these solely on our experience and cannot promise that it will stay the same in the time to come.

  1. You can NOT wear a cloth mask, it has to be surgical. So plan ahead and send your driver to the local pharmacy for a few surgical or N95 masks before you head out.

  2. Download the Aarogya Setu app before you leave for the airport. We were actually never asked to show anyone the app, but the Passenger Journey leaflet says to have it, and I have spoken to others who were asked to present it. Download it and register. We deleted it off our phones as soon as we cleared immigration and security.

  3. Download the Self Reporting form and have it filled out and printed ​in duplicate​. You will be required to present one outside at the boarding pass/passport check and then again at immigration. For reference here is the link where you can print it ​SELF REPORTING FORM FOR ALL INTERNATIONAL PASSENGERS​ We listed our US addresses on the form since we were leaving Bangalore permanently. We were asked at the airport to write our Indian address and telephone number on the back of the paper, so maybe go ahead and do that while you are filling the form to save time.

  4. Print your boarding pass! They want to see a printed form, read not on a phone, to compare with your passport. So when you check-in the day before your flight, print the boarding pass for ease of reference.

  5. Get there five hours before your flight. When I was told this by a friend I laughed and rolled my eyes. When I was told this by the Air France rep, I took it more seriously. My family arrived about four and a half hours before our flight time of 01:20 AM and the place was absolutely packed. The line was extremely long to get to the door and show your boarding pass and passport.

  6. You will stand in front of a heat-sensitive camera and be scanned while in line to enter. No big deal here. Just stand in the appropriate place and check out your body and face represented in cool colors on the screen.

  1. You will have your temperature taken by a military official at the door where you will also show your first copy of the self-reporting form.

  2. They have installed walls of clear plastic with special magnifying glass. One by one you will hold up your boarding pass and then passport to be checked. After this, you are allowed inside and at a small table right by the door, they will collect the first copy of the self-report form.

  3. Lines to check bags and be given your tickets are looooooooong and slllllllooooooowwwwww. It was our experience that patience is required in large doses while in India, and this is no different. But you are all going on the same plane, and they won’t leave you behind, so just take a breath and try to be patient, thoughtful, and kind to those around you who are stuck in the same boat.

 

BLR Airport Passenger Journey PDF

 

DROPPING BAGS + GETTING TICKETS

On a super positive note, they allowed us to check our carry on bags at no extra cost, and it’s honesty the best thing we could have hoped for as it made boarding and disembarking sooooooo much easier. The process was definitely slow, but that may have been because we had a lot of bags, and not to mention two pets that we were taking in the cabin with us (see more about leaving India with pets below). They gave us paperwork to be filled out later and given to the French government in Paris.

 

SECURITY + IMMIGRATION

Security and immigration seemed pretty normal to us. Same drill as usual on both fronts. The one exception is that you need to turn in your second copy of the self-declaration form to the immigration officer who processes you. *Reminder to print your Indian phone number and address on the back of that form because they will ask for it there. I’ll also add that they were not allowing bottles of water through the security scanners, but you’ll see below that isn’t an issue.

 

WHAT IT’S LIKE ONCE INSIDE 

I was so worked up about this part of the journey. I heard horror stories of lack of water and food, and I was certain I’d die of dehydration and never even board the plane. I can’t say (type) this loudly and clearly enough – THERE IS BOTTLED WATER FOR SALE.

While the Starbucks and pizza place were closed, the duty free shop is well equipped. We were able to buy as many bottles of Evian water for 70rs each. They also have some packaged snacks/junk food for sale. For my family the sight of Reese’s Pieces was a cause to celebrate and we focused more on them than the water! The super nice guy running the desk is happy to sell you as many bottles as you want. We bought 1 to drink while waiting inside Kempegowda and then two each for the plane. For us it was more than we needed.

TIP – I would consider bringing snacks or meals with you as there is candy and water, but nothing else. ​The Relay store was closed​, and I only saw candy for snacking inside duty-free. We brought a peanut butter and jelly sandwich along with some chicken strips from KFC we had Zomato deliver to us right before we drove to the airport. I was thankful to have these as all of the standing in lines had worked up my appetite.

 


ONBOARD THE PLANE 


While boarding you will be handed a pack containing disinfectant wipes, a surgical mask, and a face shield. They made me and my daughter put the new mask on, but said nothing to my husband. We were all wearing surgical masks already so that part I can’t explain. However, it was no issue. They were walking through the seats throughout the flight, and I did hear them very nicely remind a few people to please wear their masks if they had removed them for eating and forgot to put them back on.
The plane we flew on was very new and well equipped. It had large entertainment screens, and comfy seats. The flight was full except for maybe two or three spots throughout, so no extra room, but we didn’t mind.

 

SERVICE ON THE PLANE 

We sat in premium economy seats, and two bottles of water were already there when we boarded. Immediately after takeoff they distributed small orange bags containing a cheese sandwich, a Lassi drink, a small bottle of water, and a small Kit Kat bar. I didn’t ask for extra water as we brought some on board with us, but there didn’t seem to be a shortage at all.

About 90-60 minutes before landing breakfast was served: fruit, two rolls, butter, jam, a box of orange juice, and some Indian breakfast items: savory donut, potatoes, what I would call a thick sambar.

The toilets were open and available for use on the plane. They were very clean, and open throughout the flight.

While onboard we filled out the French paperwork we had been given.

 

LEAVING THE PLANE 

This was actually a welcome sight! They had it much more organized, and everyone seemed to comply. You were allowed to stand up only one row at a time. You could then retrieve your items from above, and only after that row had left could the next row stand and do the same. Honestly, it seemed to go quicker and easier than usual because there was no shoving or chaos.

 


PARIS


Charles de Galle was almost completely normal, just with masks. Masks are mandatory inside, and there were efforts at social distancing. For example, at La Duree (I can never resist!) only one customer is allowed in the store at a time. The Starbucks in our terminal was closed, but the Pret a Mange and Relay were both open. It was decently busy throughout the airport. The toilets were all open and clean.

 


THE SECOND FLIGHT: CDG TO ATL


If you are headed to another stop in Europe, I’ll probably be of no more help to you. However, if you are headed anywhere in the states…stay tuned!

After about a two hour layover, our second flight was on Delta. The plane was much older and not as fancy, but it was also almost empty. We flew “Comfort” class (Delta’s version of Premium economy) and each of the three of us had a row to ourselves. Masks were still required, however, they only gave you one if you requested. As you boarded the plane, they handed you a single packet of Purell and an antibacterial wipe. Once again, the toilets were clean and open throughout the flight. They gave us lunch of pasta or chicken, nuts, cheese, and grapes, and for dessert, some ice cream. About an hour before landing, they gave everyone a pizza rollup. Water was readily available and offered along with juice periodically throughout the flight.

 

LANDING IN ATLANTA

Welcome to the land of Chick-fil-A and BBQ! While on the flight we were given a CDC health form to fill out. When landing in Atlanta we followed the same disembarkation routine of one row at a time. Our temperature was taken at the end of the gangplank, and we were told very nicely, “Welcome to Atlanta!” as we were handed a CDC postcard encouraging us to self-quarantine for 14 days, and to closely monitor our health.
The only real negative about flying through Atlanta is that it is a customs stop for your luggage, so we had to exit the terminal, pass through immigration (not even a line, breezed right through), and retrieve our luggage. It was easy enough to drop it right back off at the luggage desk, but then you do have to go back through security, which was probably the worst part of the whole trip as the agents were cranky, and everyone seemed in such a hurry. But we survived, and soon rewarded ourselves with a taste of Americana!

Off we went onto the “plane trane” to get to terminal A where I happily noted all sorts of yummy places open for business. I didn’t see a single restaurant or store closed in the Atlanta airport. My family happily enjoyed Chick-fil-A as a treat while we waited, again for about a two-hour layover. Atlanta also had signage, markers on the floor, and plastic barriers at checkouts to help aid social distancing efforts.

 


THE FINAL LEG HOME:

ATL TO DFW


You could request a fresh mask when boarding the plane, and it was mandatory to wear it throughout the flight. They also handed out single packets of Purell and an antibacterial wipe. I was told by a flight attendant that the plane was purposefully only 50% full. Even though we were a family, we were spaced out across both sides of the aisle with at least one seat between us. On this flight we were given a plastic baggie soon after takeoff that contained a small bottle of water, a bag of CheezIts, and a Kind bar. The toilets were yet again clean and open for use.

 

LANDING IN DFW 

As we finally reached our destination, all was easy and smooth. Again we exited the aircraft one row at a time to help with social distancing. The airport in Dallas was also busy, and all stores and restaurants seemed to be open.

 

RENTAL CAR AT DFW 

Because we didn’t want to expose ourselves to family or friends, we planned ahead and rented an SUV from the DFW airport. We took the shuttle from Terminal E to the rental car area. Masks were required inside this part of the airport, and there were social distancing measures in place with markers on the floor where to stand in line as well as barriers at the reservations desk to keep customers six feet away from the employees.

 


TRAVELING WITH PETS


We brought our beloved cat and dog with us when we moved to India two years ago. I was extremely concerned that we wouldn’t be able to take them with us during “Corona Times,” but it was actually only a slight bit of extra work.

Here are a few tips, pointers, etc.

  1. Get a pet relocation agent. You are required to have a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to leave India with any pet. A pet relocation specialist does all of the leg work for you. You will have to obtain a health certificate, shot record, and microchip certificate along with two color photos of your pet. However, the agent handled scheduling the appointment with the Animal Quarantine Officer as well as waiting around for the paperwork to be processed and hand-delivering the NOC to our home. There are several in India, but I always prefer to work with local guys. We used AVZA Movers for both our shipment and for obtaining the pet paperwork. My contact there is Saahil Saxena ​saahil@avzamove.com​ or on WhatsApp +91 96866 85392

  2. Talk with the airline ASAP about what is required and the guidelines for pets even before you have tickets booked. There are rules regarding weight, dimensions of the kennel, etc

  3. We were told all pets had to be taken in the cabin, but while at the airport we saw a very large dog in a very large crate being checked for cargo. This would probably depend on your final destination.

  4. If you opt for a soft-sided kennel, these are easily and readily found on Amazon India and were delivered the day after ordering. ***BE SURE TO CHECK THE DIMENSIONS!

  5. Even though I have paperwork declaring my dog as an emotional support animal, the Air France flight attendants on the BLR to CDG leg refused to allow me to let him out of his kennel. I also found zero pet facilities at CDG where service animals could relieve themselves and be fed. So make sure you have extra pee pads to accommodate these less than accommodating situations.

  6. If taking them in the cabin, you have to remove your pets from their bags and carry them through security at all airports. This was especially fun with our cat who is known to bolt. Plan ahead, and buy a harness for your cat and dog if you don’t already have one. ‘

  1. Only a certain number of pets are allowed in each cabin class of each flight, so reserve spots early!

  2. We paid approximately $125 per pet for their trip in the cabin.

  3. Atlanta has several service animal “lounges” with fake grass and a fire hydrant along with space to even give your dog a bath. Photo below with a list of these and which gates they are near. DFW also has a pet area in every terminal, and dogs are free to walk about on a leash.

  4. The only thing required by the US government regarding pets is the shot records. Your pet’s rabies vaccine must be between thirty days and twelve months old.

  5. If you plan to return to India, really investigate what this means for your pet. Currently, it is my understanding that if a pet belonging to a foreigner leaves India, it is ineligible to return for two years.

Erin M

Erin is an American expat living in Bangalore with her husband, Martin, her daughter, Averie, and the family pets: Lou and Delilah. If Lou, a chiweenie dog, could talk, he would tell you that Erin is his person! Erin hails from the great state of Texas. She never imagined leaving there but could not resist the adventure of living as an expat in India. She misses the wide open spaces, American football, and the way people say “ya’ll” back home. Professionally, she has a combined 15 years of teaching experience as an elementary school teacher, a music teacher, and a home school teacher. Erin is excited to share the lessons learned from her pet relocation experience…so that others can profit from the knowledge she gained!

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