International travel, whether for business or leisure, has come to a grinding halt due to the all-consuming COVID-19 pandemic.
During this crisis, while the travel industry finds itself floundering, travel agencies have found a new way to stay afloat in the form of charter flights. It is clear that at least for the next few months, their bread and butter will come from ferrying people back home.
Based in Melbourne, Gaura Travel was one of the first agencies to get on to the charter-flights-for-repatriation bandwagon. It wasn’t an easy entry into the scene, many buyers were concerned about the validity of the enterprise, given that all previous flights had been organised by governments.
But the successful completion of Gaura’s first trip to India was hailed all round.
Ashwini Sonthalia, CEO of Gaura Travels, told Indian Link, “I don’t think the charter business will go on forever because it’s too expensive. Previously you would get roundtrip tickets for $1000 and now we’re charging $1500 dollars just one way. But at least for the month of August, this is the situation.”
Gaura Travels currently have two scheduled charter flights to Delhi with Sri Lankan Airlines, one on 31 July from Melbourne and another on 1 August from Sydney. The agency had previously partnered with Singapore Airlines but have now switched to Sri Lankan Airlines.
“Some customers couldn’t afford the tickets so we switched to a cheaper airline to help them get home,” Ashwini said.
Simrranjit Singh of Fortune World Tour expressed the rarity of the current conditions of air travel around the world.
“This is a once-in-a-century type situation.
“Our industry was the first one to go into lockdown, and will be the last to get out of it,” he told Indian Link.
His agency currently has chartered two flights to Ahmedabad, one confirmed on 5 August departing from Sydney and another on 6 August departing from Melbourne which is awaiting approval.
The travel agency received multiple expressions of interest on its website about the lack of direct flights to Gujarat.
“Some people don’t have connecting flights from Delhi and they don’t want to quarantine there. A lot of people from Gujarat have been trying to get back and they want a hassle-free journey, they’ve already been through a lot.”
While chartering flights is the need of the hour, it is not an easy process.
Roheena Gidwani, Managing Director of Airline Rep Services, said the constant changes in Indian and Australian Government rules and restrictions pose a challenge for travel agencies.
“Due to the cap on incoming passengers (in Australia), fares have increased dramatically. There are also several Indian Government regulations and prior approvals to be completed. We also face the potential risk of being unable to operate a full flight and incurring a loss to the company.”
The travel group is planning a series of charter flights with Air India departing from Sydney and Melbourne over the next few weeks. Their earliest charter flight is scheduled in the second week of August.
“The Air India charters are unique in that they are non-stop and will allow us to cover more than one Indian city on the one flight,” Roheena explained.
Airline Rep Services comes with some experience in the field.
“We have already completed a number of private charters for corporate clients and are planning several more in the next few months,” Roheena revealed.
Prices on the charter flights by the agencies mentioned here vary between $1,500-$1,900 for economy and $2,500-$3,500 for business class.
“On our part, we continue to negotiate with the airline to bring down the cost of tickets.
“We are well aware of the financial limitations of our stranded passengers,” Roheena said.
While every airline might have unique protocols concerning COVID-19 regulations, the travel agencies listed above have communicated identical circumstances on board. All charter flights will have PPE supplied to each passenger courtesy of the airline. All travellers will receive pre-packed food to limit interaction between crew and passengers.
However, there will be no social distancing on the flights. Without leaving the middle seat vacant, 250-300 passengers are accommodated on each aircraft.
Meanwhile, in an unusual but laudable move, a community organisation has also taken to organising repatriation flights. The Perth-based Indian Society of Western Australia has recently seen off its first planeload of repatriates to India, in a series of charter flights to Delhi and Ahmedabad.
“We partnered with Garuda Indonesia airlines and a charter company called CapaJet,” Assistant Secretary of ISWA, Satish Nair disclosed.
CapaJet will provide end to end service, with domestic transfers to people travelling further to Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Amritsar.
“The plight of the stranded travellers, especially seniors, motivated us to take this project on and look for charter flights,” Satish told Indian Link.
He added, “This has helped our organisation to be grow beyond a fair-organising, song-and-dance group, to truly offer help in a time of need.