A group of expats and aviation experts have banded together to organise private charter flights to bring home hundreds of Australians stranded in India.
Some 1,300 Australians stuck in the country put their name to an email calling on Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne to help get them home.
New Delhi resident and Australian expat Simon Quinn created a Facebook support group called Australians Stuck in India, which lobbied the government for emergency flights.
“I saw that lots of foreigners here were really struggling after the lockdown started,” Mr Quinn told the ABC.
“People were afraid, there were horror stories of people being locked in hotel rooms.”
Mr Quinn speaks Hindi, which made the situation easier for him to handle.
“But for the average tourist, this was a really scary time,” he said.
India has entered the third week of a nationwide lockdown that prohibits interstate and international travel, as the country continues to try to curb the rapidly increasing number of coronavirus cases.
“People assume [Australians] hadn’t heeded the calls from home,” Mr Quinn said.
“The lockdown happened really fast. Even if people wanted to get out, they just couldn’t.”
As European countries started evacuating their citizens from India, Mr Quinn reached out to aviation experts.
He eventually contacted Brendon Hempel, a pilot of 25 years and managing director of an aircraft leasing company, Stratos Group Aviation.
Mr Hempel had already leased several Lion Air aircraft, which were transporting medical supplies from China to Australia, when he decided to help the stranded Aussies.
Another Australian charter company, Monarc Global, also joined the cause and designed an online ticketing system specifically for the evacuation flights.
“People were tired of waiting for a solution to arrive, and we were able to back this operation privately,” Mr Hempel said.
“I know it’s a difficult time for families who are scared of their security and wellbeing.
“I did actually see a video from an Australian in Delhi who was trapped essentially in his apartment, awaiting some sort of help from government to get out. That was really the passion in trying to help out.”
The first flight is scheduled to leave on Saturday from Delhi to Melbourne, via Denpasar.
‘It should not have been their responsibility’
Australians Chloe Dimopoulos and her partner Ben Munro, who spent more than 18 days stuck in a hospital in Jaipur, have tickets for the first flight out.
“[We’re] elated, absolutely stoked,” Ms Dimopoulos said from her Delhi hotel room.
“We were psyching in our heads that we were going to be here for months, the lockdown would be extended, it would be a nightmare.”
The couple were put into quarantine in hospital after Ms Dimopoulos came down with a fever, but they were barred from leaving for weeks despite both testing negative twice for COVID-19.
“We were nervous that it still wasn’t real until we were literally in the car,” Mr Munro said.
“When we were in the hospital we saw … that a lot of other countries were doing evacuation flights. We felt pretty left behind.”
Mr Munro said he was grateful the charter flight organisers came through.
“I think it should not have been their responsibility,” he added.
Australians pay about $2,000 to get out of India
Organisers expect up to 10 flights can be scheduled from Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, but are concerned about how long this may take as authorities have requested each flight is staggered by three days to cope with the influx.
Tickets are likely to cost about $2,000, which is more than half what Australians paid for official emergency flights from Peru.
The Australian High Commission in India has helped the rescue mission clear bureaucratic hurdles and arranged travel passes for people to travel to the airport during India’s lockdown.
— Australian High Commission, India & Bhutan (@AusHCIndia) April 6, 2020
On April 9, Ms Payne said she had spoken with her Indian counterpart about organising a commercial flight to Australia.
“People think it’s quite simple that you order charter flights,” Mr Quinn said.
“But what people don’t really understand [is] there’s a lot of complex issues that Australia faced that other countries didn’t.”
The Australian government has stopped short of “endorsing” the private charter flights, stating government officials and contractors have been instructed to not fly Lion Air until an investigation in a 2018 fatal crash is complete.
But Mr Hempel said he personally had no safety concerns about the airline.
“They’re a large airline,” Mr Hempel said.
“In this case, they’ve been extremely helpful and at the end of the day they’re scrutinised by the [International Civil Aviation Organisation] and the same levels of organisation that Australian airliners are.”