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Flight from Calcutta for stranded foreigners

Germany lends helping hand to EU, UK citizens
Calcutta airport

Sudeshna Banerjee   |   Calcutta   |   Published 29.03.20, 08:54 PM

The federal foreign office of Germany has arranged an Air India flight from Calcutta to evacuate its nationals stranded in eastern India because of the cessation of international flights in India to fight the spread the coronavirus.

Citizens of other European Union nations and the UK will be allowed on board as well.

The plane is expected to fly out from Dum Dum airport with more than 150 passengers on Tuesday morning.

“The embassy signed a contract with Air India on Saturday morning in Delhi. This repatriation programme is for short-term visitors who do not have back-up to stay on as well as Indians who hold permits of residency in Germany,” deputy consul general Jurgen Thomas Schrod told Metro.

The flight will stop at Delhi for refuelling before flying onwards to Frankfurt.

There will be about 100 Germans on board, along with citizens of Britain, France, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece and Finland. “Since this is a special flight, flyers will not get a boarding pass but will have to sign a form to pay a fare equivalent to normal economy class ticket rates.”

The flight has a capacity of 238 passengers but will carry only about 150 to ensure social distancing. “We still have a few seats available to fill up,” Schrod said.

The deputy consul general worked a 10-hour shift on Saturday, attending calls on three phones and answering emails, and was back at his table on Sunday at the consulate general with his colleagues. “We are a small consulate but this needs to be done. My colleagues in other European consulates in the city are also working hard to make this a success. We want to ease the burden on society and the government here in the midst of the pandemic.”

He admitted hearing accounts of problems foreign nationals have been facing. “It is not as if they are carriers (of the Covid-19 virus). But it’s natural that local people are scared. This (flying them out) will make the locals feel safe as well.”

Britain would have the most citizens on the flight after the Germans. British deputy high commissioner Nick Low pointed out that though places like Punjab, Goa and Kerala had a lot more British visitors, most of them holiday-makers coming to India for the first time, the demography of the expatriates in eastern India is different.

“Many of them have roots here and came to spend time with their families. We have received numerous calls seeking assistance to go back to the UK. The announcement of the cessation of flights was made at a short notice and many could not make it back. We are trying to map where they are in Calcutta or further afield in West Bengal.”

The number of British passengers is in double digits “The demand so far roughly matches the number of seats we expect to get on the flight,” Low said.

More than tracking the passengers, Schrod is worried about them reaching Calcutta amid the lockdown restrictions. “They have to come at their own initiative as we cannot provide transport. I know some arrived on backs of vegetable trucks!”

Some have registered from Assam, Nagaland and Odisha. He is particularly worried about a man and his girlfriend stuck in Jharkhand. “I do not know how they will make it as we hear the border is closed.”

The assembly point is Swissotel in Rajarhat on Monday. “We are asking them to stay there overnight so we can transport them to the airport on Tuesday in buses,” Schrod said, adding that he hoped the local administration would allow the bus trip on humanitarian grounds.

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