India's domestic flight services resumed on Monday after a gap of two months but a large number of last-minute cancellations by airlines triggered chaos leaving thousands of passengers stranded.
According to aviation industry sources, about 630 of an estimated 1,150 domestic flights for which bookings opened on May 22 were cancelled after some states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu allowed only limited operations or delayed reopening of their airports owing to a spike in coronavirus cases.
The Centre for its part said 532 flights carrying 39,231 passengers were operated on the first day of resumption of flights.
On Sunday night, it had announced a delay in resumption of air services in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal by up to 3 days and only limited operations at major airports such as Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad.
Thousands of passengers reached airports since early in the morning on Monday only to be told by the staff of airlines that some of their flights have been cancelled causing hardship to them. Many people also took to social media to vent their anger.
Gripped by anxiety and uncertainty, some came from faraway towns and were on the road for several hours wanting to catch the first flight to their respective states.
The varied COVID-19 quarantine and self-isolation rules in states and also the Union health ministry guidelines for arriving travellers also compounded their travel woes.
The airlines, which were allowed to operate one-third of their pre-lockdown domestic services from May 25, had to further truncate their flight schedules on Sunday leading to the cancellations. All carriers except GoAir operated their flights on Monday.
The flights were resumed on a day when India registered the biggest single day spike of 6,977 new coronavirus cases surpassing the 6,000 mark for the fourth day -- taking its tally to 1,38,845. India is now in the top ten worst affected countries by the pandemic, overtaking Iran which was in the 10th position with 135,701 cases.
Commercial flight operations have remained shut from March 25 owing to the nationwide lockdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic though special evacuation flights have been carried out in the last few weeks to bring back stranded Indians from abroad.
"From no domestic passenger flights yesterday, today action has returned to Indian skies. With Andhra Pradesh set to resume operations from tomorrow & West Bengal from 28 May, these numbers are all set to increase further," Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said, as India entered the last week of the thrice-extended 68-day lockdown that is due to end on May 31.
The first flight took off from Delhi for Pune at 4.45 am under strict regulations recommended by civil aviation authorities. The first flight from Mumbai was to Patna and it departed at 6.45 am. Both were operated by Indigo airlines. Delhi and Mumbai are the country's two busiest airports.
People wore face masks and gloves as they boarded flights to their hometowns and workplaces from different airports in the country after following strict health protocols like thermal screening. Some also wore the full body personal protective equipment suits.
It was a sweet homecoming for five-year-old Vihaan Sharma who flew back to Bengaluru alone from Delhi and was received by his mother. He was among the passengers who were on an Indigo flight.
The boy's mother told reporters at the airport that he was coming to Bengaluru after three months. Vihaan was with his grand-parents in Delhi.
"Welcome home, Vihaan! #BLR Airport is constantly working towards enabling the safe return of all our passengers," the Bangalore International Airport Limited, which manages the city's Kempegowda International Airport, tweeted.
Aamir Afzal, a mechanical engineer, who had come to Delhi on an official visit on March 23, was among those who took an early morning flight to return to Patna to celebrate Eid with family and friends.
"I had been staying in a hotel in Mahipalpur with my co-worker. The hotel charged us Rs 900 per day. We could not get a confirmed ticket on a train back home," he said.
But not all were lucky with many people having travelled long distances only to find their flights being cancelled.
"I travelled all the way from Ambala (in Haryana) on a bus to take a 6 am flight to Kolkata. When I reached here, I got to know the flight had been cancelled. I am returning home now," said Naik Satish Kumar of the army.
Excited to meet his two-year-old daughter, Santu Mandal, a resident of West Bengal's Burdwan district, reached the Delhi airport along with his brother, Nasiruddin Mandal, at 1 am, unaware that the flight to Kolkata had been cancelled. The Mandal brothers are engaged in hand embroidery business.
Those who took the first flights from the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi included paramilitary personnel, army men, students, and migrant workers. Many said they had to shell out lot of money to reach the airport as there were limited public transport options available.
Airline crew present at the airport terminals said the check-in process, printing of boarding pass, and frisking were made contact-less.
While cabin attendants were seen wearing the PPE suits, security officials at the entry gates and other staff wore face masks, face shields and gloves. Passengers patiently stood in long queues and were repeatedly asked to maintained physical distance.
The Union health ministry in its guidelines issued for domestic flights has advised airlines not to board anyone showing symptoms of coronavirus.
All passengers were also asked to download Aarogya Setu application on their mobile phones and only asymptomatic travellers were allowed to board.
The Centre has suggested that asymptomatic passengers can be allowed to go home by the destination states after asking them to monitor their health for 14 days.
Some states have decided to put passengers on mandatory institutional quarantine while several others talked about putting them under home quarantine or both.
Baggages at departure and arrival points were also sanitised by the airport staff.
An IndiGo spokesperson said 20,000 passengers will travel on Monday through the airline's flights.
In a press release, SpiceJet said its first flight on Monday took off from Ahmedabad at 6.05 am and reached Delhi at 7.10 am.
The budget carrier said it also operated 20 flights on Monday on routes awarded under regional connectivity UDAN scheme.
Some of the passengers who reached Raipur from Delhi said they felt relieved at being back home after two months.
"An Indigo flight with 82 passengers from Delhi landed at Raipur airport at 9 am," said Raipur Airport Director Rakesh Sahay.
"I am happy to be back home," said Anupama, a Raipur native who works with a private firm in Gurugram.
"Since March 16 my office was shut, so I was confined to my home in Gurugram. Though I was not facing any problem there, but I just wanted to return to my home here, she said.
The resumption of flight services also came as a big relief for a Hyderabad-bound passenger.
"My two-month-old daughter has some eye problem and doctors suggested to take her to a hospital in Hyderabad," the 32-year-old passenger said.
A native of Chhattisgarh's Durg district, he booked tickets for Hyderabad as soon as he came to know about the resumption of domestic flight services.
He along with his family boarded the flight which took off from from Raipur for Hyderabad.