Private jets in demand as rich Indians scramble to escape India Covid horror
Dubai, United Arab Emirates: Indians from the UAE's millions-strong ex-pat population are flooding private jet operators with requests to fly them back to safety after being trapped in their homeland during a catastrophic coronavirus outbreak.
Fearing a prolonged flight ban between India and the Gulf state, they want to take advantage of a private business plane exemption that was in place during the first wave of the global crisis last year.
The United Arab Emirates is home to an estimated 3.5 million Indians.
The new flight suspension, which took effect on Sunday, has resulted in the cancellation of approximately 300 commercial flights that fly on one of the world's busiest air corridors on a weekly basis.
Aside from low-wage laborers on short-term contracts, the abrupt relocation has left members of long-established wealthy families stranded in India for vacation, jobs, or medical emergencies.
Many people are panicking as cases in India surge, with 18 million infections and over 201,000 deaths, and the daily fatality toll exceeding 3,000 for the first time on Wednesday.
T. Patel, a businessman based in Dubai, is working tirelessly to return his brother's wife and three children, who are currently stranded in Bangalore.
"I am exploring the private jet option. It is a lot of money but if I have no other way of bringing them back, then I will go for it," he said.
After the UAE closed its airspace in March last year to combat the spread of coronavirus, some residents collected funds for seats on shared chartered planes that were allowed to travel to Dubai.
Patel paid $10,500 to fly his parents and niece to Dubai, which is nearly 20 times the price of standard airline tickets.
"I waited for two months and finally hired a private jet for $42,000, the cost of which was shared by a few equally desperate residents," he said.
Dozens of charter flights flew passengers from India to Dubai in the days leading up to the new ban, after all, commercial seats were sold out, and charter companies say demand has since risen.
A 13-seat jet flight from Mumbai to Dubai costs between $35,000 and $38,000, or roughly 35 times the price of a standard ticket. Some cities' prices are much higher.
However, as demand grows, operators are struggling to explain rules on private planes landing in the UAE.
"Chartered flights need to get approval from the General Civil Aviation Authority and the foreign ministry to operate. But we do not know who is exempted to travel," said Tapish Khivensra, CEO of Enthral Aviation Private Jet Charter.
UAE residents, ambassadors, government delegations, and "businessmen's flights" are exempt from the ban, as long as passengers follow precautions such as a 10-day quarantine.
'At any expense'
In the long run, Purushothaman Nair, a Dubai native, said he was willing to "spend a fortune" to return to the UAE.
"My wife and I came to India for just 10 days. We have to fly back to Dubai at any cost," he told AFP.
"There are many people who are willing to pay up. How can people with business interests and big responsibilities in the UAE afford to stay away for a longer period?" said Nair, who works in the government sector.
"The fear of contracting the virus is a bigger worry."
The less well-off are balancing the high cost against the possibility of losing their jobs.
"If I cannot make it in a few weeks, my job is on the line. My employer is already putting pressure on me and asking me to travel to the UAE via other countries," Jameel Mohammed told AFP.
When Mohammed was given leave in March, he hadn't seen his young son in two years.
He was overjoyed at the possibility of a reunion, but he is now stuck in Kerala, India's southernmost state.
"I can't afford that kind of money. But if the choice is between losing my job and borrowing money, I will do the latter and fly back."