Airport Procedures For Travel From India To UAE During The Covid-19 Pandemic
Normally a visit to another country involves that small sense of excitement in anticipation of what is to come. However, during these tough times, traveling during the Covid-19 pandemic is an experience that needs to be tackled with the utmost caution, adhering to all possible safety measures to avoid contracting the virus. Airports are, after all, a hotbed for huge gatherings, compounded by the fact that passengers might even be in transit to a third destination.
There is a lot of confusing, and often contradictory, information out there regarding the procedures to be followed as well as the availability of flight tickets, things to be done, and even the list of nationalities permitted to enter certain countries.
This blog details my journey from Chennai, India to Dubai, UAE, on the 19th of August, 2020.
Pre-travel to-do List
The very first thing that you need to ensure is the availability of flights to your destination. A large number of private carriers have temporarily halted their services to and from a list of destinations, especially in those countries that have been hit badly by the pandemic and see a large number of fresh cases to this day. There were only a couple of carriers available from Chennai to the UAE. Initially, I'd booked an Air Arabia flight to Sharjah, but that got canceled within the next couple of days. I ended up booking an Air India Express flight to Dubai instead, which was part of the Vande Bharat Phase V scheduled list of flights.
Even before that, however, make sure the type of passport and visa(and procedures for the same) are in the permitted list, as in these turbulent times a lot of restrictions are in place. In fact, Indian passengers seeking to travel to the UAE on Visit Visas were not permitted until 15th August, and the Vande Bharat scheme was specifically for UAE Residence Visa holders. Visa On Arrival facility still remains disabled to date, so ensure that you get a Visa arranged for via a travel agent either in the country of your residence, or a reliable source in the UAE, which I personally recommend for a hassle-free process. Check with your country's embassy in the UAE on social media, or look for a clear, explicit news article that states that your particular passport and visa combination is eligible to travel, before booking tickets and making arrangements.
You need to get a Covid-19 test done no more than 96 hours before the departure of your flight according to UAE regulations. This test has to be done from one of the government-accredited testing centers of your country of departure, or from the list of PureHealth screening facilities(curated by the UAE). Produce this negative test result on arrival in Dubai.
It is also recommended that Visit Visa holders procure a Medical Insurance for Covid-19, lasting the duration of your stay at the UAE, for an additional charge of around AED 200. Indian Immigration officials actually asked me to produce this Medical Insurance, so be sure to purchase one to avoid any problems before your flight.
I would advice taking printouts of all relevant travel documents that you may be asked to produce at your departure port, just so that you can prevent your phone from being passed around. Every single touch or contact is undesirable at this point!
Purchase a few masks, a bottle of sanitizer, and if you want to err on the side of caution, a hazmat suit. Descriptions of N-95 masks being hard to breathe in are wildly exaggerated in my opinion. I used one for the entirety of my journey, right until I reached home, and faced no problems whatsoever breathing, at any single point of time. Face shields are provided before the flight takes off(we'll get to that in a bit). I did not carry gloves with me, as according to a relative who works in the medical field, most people do not know the right way to take off their gloves and end up defeating the whole purpose behind wearing them in the first place.
Social distancing wasn't really being actively enforced at the Chennai airport. There was a distinct lack of crowd in the airport though, which should help you do your part. Before you even enter the airport to check-in your baggage, a small form is provided, where you fill in basic contact information and your address in Chennai(carry your own pen for this). The line was slow-moving though, and the officer was perfectly fine with taking his own sweet time while checking the details and permitting passengers to proceed onward. Not to mention the fact that he couldn't be bothered to pull his mask above his nose, thereby, once again, defeating the whole purpose behind wearing protective gear.
You are asked to display the front page of your passport shortly afterward, to a contactless desk, before you make your way to check-in your baggage. Immediately, I noticed that the airport was infinitely less crowded and quieter, perhaps owing to all the shops being closed. The procedure here does take a little bit longer than usual, but they have a transparent barricade in place between yourself and the check-in officer who issues your boarding pass. The officer here was careful in checking and ensuring that you have all the relevant, aforementioned documents on your person, including your Medical Insurance before she issued my boarding card.
I made my way to the Immigration counter, where lines were non-existent and the counters, empty. Once again, the Immigration officer was more inquisitive than usual, but all that being done, it was business as usual. Security Checks were smooth and decently quick, owing once again to the lack of the usual airport traffic. I frequently used the hand-sanitizer after touching a foreign object, and I recommend that you do the same, just to be safe. All the officials in the Security Check area were in full PPE, but that is no excuse for you to not wash your hands and keep your mask on.
Even though I arrived 3 hours before departure, which I never usually do, I only had around an hour or so left to kill, waiting at the departure gate. You are handed a small transparent pouch that carries a surgical mask, a few packets(yes, small, paan-shaped packets) of sanitizer, and a face shield made of very weak, transparent, foldable material. Which I guess is fine, as long as it serves to be a barrier between your face and the rest of the world.
Waiting at the gate until the departure was when it began to sink in, how empty the airport was. Normally, if not teeming with people, at least half-full, it was now row after row of empty seats. This Air India Express flight to Dubai, which was scheduled for an 8:30 AM departure, was the only flight at the time. It was nice to see that people were at least pretending to socially distance, made easier by the fact that the 100 or so passengers bound for Dubai had the airport to ourselves.
Boarding commenced, and we were asked to don the face shield, masks, and any other PPE of our choice. There were a couple of passengers who pulled out their portable hazmat suits. I was actually told by a friend who had traveled recently that I would be provided a hazmat by Air India Express, but that was not the case. Nevertheless, I put on my 'shield', which was just a piece of rubber-band(it was tight, I'll give them that) attached to a weak material which I do not know the name of. Social Distancing was once again left to the free will of the passengers, and I have to say, there were a couple of men who did come dangerously close to me, who I then had to shoo away after a staredown. Eventually, boarding was completed, not very different from how it happens normally. We were provided with a box containing a small(and I mean, really small) bread-and-cheese, a small(really small) piece of bland cake, and a cute little water bottle, upon entering the aircraft.
The flight was around 70% full according to my guesstimation. Passengers were encouraged to refrain from moving around the aircraft even when the seatbelt sign went off and to ensure that the lavatories are properly cleaned after usage. I spent half of the 4 hours on-board by trying to fall asleep, and the other 2 hours playing Sudoku. Nothing much of note happened here, and the flight safely landed.
Post-landing Series of Events
A couple of buses arrived outside the aircraft at Dubai International Airport, Terminal 2. Signs were in place on every alternate seat on the bus, in an attempt to make people socially distance, though I fail to see the point in this as the flight itself did not enforce any such thing.
Dubai Airport was significantly more crowded, at the same time it was clearly not peak traffic, and hence, passengers were able to maintain a safe distance from each other. An official was in place to collect your negative Covid-19 test, and I was directed to a line for Passport Control. To give credit where it's due, the officials here were pretty fast in carrying out their work, and I made my way to get a stick inserted into my nostrils once again. Yes, Dubai conducts Covid-19 tests on arrival as well.
Passengers were redirected to an area where we were asked to be seated, and wait for what I assumed was the Covid-19 test. I'd advise being extremely careful here, as the officials have simply too many people to try and enforce distancing at this point, and there were a couple of people who couldn't care less, with their masks down as well. This was a wait for around 30 minutes, after which I made my way to the counter.
At the counter, the official entered basic contact information onto a computer, scanned my passport, and handed me a baggie with a barcode on it. We were then redirected to an isolated area in the airport itself, where the testing was happening. Separate cubicles were neatly bifurcated and after the test, the baggage belt was my next stop. I collected my suitcase and exited the airport, relieved that I was finally in Dubai, but nervously awaiting the test result from the Dubai Airport.
I was told by my friend that the results came pretty quickly, and almost always within 24 hours. I quarantined myself in a hotel, expecting my result to come at around 11:30 AM the next day, as that was 24 hours from when I approximately got tested. To my surprise, I received the negative test result at 2 AM, which was 14 hours from when I got swabbed.
On the whole, the entire process, while not very difficult, and really not that far removed from normal travel, is different in a way, and requires a level of planning. This planning is mostly for before departure, with regards to ensuring you are eligible to travel and have all relevant documents in place. I recommend closely monitoring the travel situation on Social Media, especially Twitter. Ensure, and cross-check, that you are allowed to travel because the last thing you want is to be stopped from boarding a flight during a pandemic. I reiterate the fact that the N-95 Mask was perfectly fine for me to travel with, and I faced 0 breathing difficulty whatsoever. As long as you have reasonable respiratory health, N-95 Masks should be the safest best for you to travel with. Do not panic, do not touch foreign objects, avoid people, and as long as you've done your research, have fun, and enjoy traveling.
I hope your experience is as uneventful and hassle-free as mine!