Stranded Travelers Face Pricey Repatriation Flights

For Indian and U.S. nationals, getting on pandemic repatriation flights is an expensive, uncertain ordeal.

(Dominik Scythe)

Payal Mohta


May 6, 2020


9 min

Debayani Kar feels a sort of survivor’s guilt. Kar is an American citizen and was on the U.S. government’s first repatriation flight from Mumbai in early April.

“I have never felt my privilege as deeply as I did then, to be able to cash in on my U.S. passport to get out of [India’s] lockdown,” Kar said. “It was a very surreal experience.”

Kar is among a few thousand Americans who have taken U.S. government flights from India back to the United States as the global coronavirus pandemic continues to infect millions across the world. About 263,000 have died from COVID-19. The growing tolls and anxiety have left governments grappling with a wartime-like conundrum: how do they bring their people abroad home? But even for those who manage to get a flight back, the experience is an expensive, uncertain, and anxiety-inducing ordeal.

The U.S. government has been coordinating flights from India to the United States for its citizens and lawful permanent residents — and their families — on a limited basis. Interested travelers fill out a form and the government contacts them if space is available, often with short notice. So far, the United States has repatriated about 80,000 thousand travelers worldwide, including thousands from South Asian countries: India (5,821), Pakistan (3,192), Bangladesh (1,281), Nepal (603), and Afghanistan (77).

Since April 4, the United States has chartered 44 flights through large Delta and United Airlines jetliners to repatriate the about 5,821 travelers from India. The Indian government has also announced that it will repatriate its citizens beginning this week, giving relief to the Indian nationals stuck in the U.S., who have felt hopeless.

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