'Extremely painful': Passengers on repatriation flights from India describe disorganized booking process
Dealing with government-approved travel agency caused anxiety, stress, Canadians and permanent residents say
Some Canadian citizens and permanent residents returning from India on repatriation flights organized by the federal government say the process of returning home was rife with disorganization and difficulties in dealing with a travel agency that they claim was unresponsive to requests for ticket and ground-travel information.
The Indian government introduced a sudden, three-week long countrywide lockdown on March 25 to control the spread of COVID-19, which left many visiting the country with no way to get home as international travel came to a halt.
Last week, Global Affairs Canada announced six repatriation flights from Delhi and Mumbai would be available on a first-come, first-served basis for Canadians and immediate family members who are permanent residents, with tickets priced at $2,900 each.
The announcement sparked a rush for tickets and then frustration among people trying to contact a travel agency, Corporate Flyers, that people were instructed by the federal government to use for reservations and ground-transportation arrangements.
Harjot Mehta, his wife Jaskiran, one-year-old son and 14 relatives had been on a trip to India to celebrate his child's birthday when the lockdown began and their flights were cancelled.
Mehta said he was relieved to learn Global Affairs Canada had made arrangements for repatriation flights and grateful for the opportunity to return home to Edmonton but he said the process of dealing with Corporate Flyers was convoluted and stressful.
"Painful, extremely painful. I'm very disappointed. It was email after email. It was phone calls after phone calls asking the questions when, where, why, and how are we going to get back," Mehta said.
He said waiting in limbo for tickets with less than 24 hours before boarding is not fair, especially for people who have to travel farther to reach the airport such as his in-laws who had to make an eight hour trip from Moga to Delhi.
Mehta said his persistence paid off and his family was able to get on one of the flights, from Delhi, and back home on Monday night.
Sonia Saran's 61-year-old father Jeetander arrived in Toronto this week after taking a repatriation flight.
She said his ticket was confirmed on the day of his flight after she called Corporate Flyers repeatedly.
"A lot of back and forth. Sometimes they wouldn't pick up the phone. The phone is turned off. Sending them emails [saying] 'please respond to us,'" Saran said.
"We got through and we said, 'listen we need that ticket'."
Saran said within 30 minutes of that phone call, her father received his ticket.
Several people stranded in India have also been taking to social media to complain about the process involved in booking plane tickets.
In a statement sent to CBC News, Corporate Flyers CEO Kapil Kumrai said the company faced an "unprecedented situation" in making travel arrangements due to the lockdown and issues surrounding COVID-19.
"If we get a busload of passengers or if we need vehicles to do transfers, we need to find a transport company and then to make sure drivers show up. Then, all such vehicles' movements need approval from government. This is a process which is quite cumbersome and tough during such a situation," said Kumrai.
He said bookings depend on several moving parts, including the receipt of flight and payment confirmations from the airline, before they can be passed on to the traveller.
He denied his team was unresponsive.
"We have many good stories. We know a few are complaining, but this is beyond the control of anyone and things are becoming more difficult with every passing day," he said.
More travel agencies added to help repatriate Canadians
In a letter to Canadian citizens, the High Commission of Canada in New Delhi acknowledged the problems people are facing in attempting to leave India.
"We understand that the process of booking flights and arranging ground transportation has been challenging and a source of frustration for some of you, in what is already a very stressful situation," the letter from consular services said.
It said two more travel agencies, Thomas Cook India and Forvol International Services, will be engaged by the government to help Canadians come back home.
"We now have a total of three service providers dividing the work to ensure that the process of reserving seats and booking transportation will be more efficient in the future," the High Commission said.