V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR
The opening of the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) between Singapore and India from Nov 29 has come as a boon to Mr Sam Raj. He has not seen his wife, three children and parents for more than two years.
But the mechanical engineer, who has been living in Singapore for the past 16 years, is in a fix because there are no direct flight tickets available to Kochi, a city in Kerala, where his family lives.
"I plan to take advantage of the VTL and go to Kochi in December," said the 39-year-old. "It will be the school holidays and my brother, who lives in Dubai, said he will also fly down. But the problem for me is there are no direct flights from Singapore to Kochi and tickets on flights to nearby cities such as Tiruchirappalli and Chennai are not available.
"Air India Express used to fly to Kochi under the Vande Bharat Mission (repatriation flights organised by the Indian government). But they ceased suddenly this month."
Many Indians and Singaporeans who intend to travel to Indian destinations from Singapore next month are in a similar quandary to Mr Raj's because Vande Bharat flights are now available only to selected cities such as Tiruchirappalli and Chennai (Air India Express) and New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru (Air India) and tickets on those flights have been sold out until the end of next month.
It is not known why Air India flights to other Indian cities such as Kochi and Hyderabad were suddenly stopped.
Air India's manager in Singapore did not respond to calls and messages.
"It is a tough situation for many but I'm hopeful that Air India will operate more flights to more Indian cities soon," said K. Manivannan, an IT specialist who works in a Singapore company.
"I'm an employment pass holder and want to go to Kumbakonam (a city in Tamil Nadu) as I have not seen my family in more than two years. There are no travel restrictions for me now but I can't get a flight ticket to Tiruchirappalli on Air India Express which is closest to my home."
Mr Manivannan is upset that there is no clear information on when more flights will be available to India.
"Air India is silent on this and so too the Indian government," he said. "I also don't know the VTL protocols to follow. It is very disturbing."
At the Covid-19 multi-ministry task force news conference on Monday, Transport Minister S. Iswaran said that Singapore and India are currently in discussions on the resumption of scheduled commercial passenger services.
He added that there is "an aim" to resume two daily VTL flights each from Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai by Nov 29.
On Wednesday, India's Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, who is currently in Singapore, tweeted that he met Mr Iswaran and "discussed enhancing travel arrangements between the two countries".
Technically, repatriation flights cannot be included under Singapore's VTL arrangement and only scheduled commercial flights can operate.
Indian newspapers have reported that Singapore is keen that Singapore Airlines should restart partial operations to India.
A High Commission of India spokesperson said that talks for resumption of commercial flights between Singapore and India are moving in the right direction and a decision will be announced by this weekend.
"I'm waiting for that to happen because I want to send my ageing mother to Mumbai as soon as possible," said Mr Jobu K. Babu, an engineer in the oil and gas industry. "She needs medical treatment and I want to send her on a secure, direct flight.
"There are options to send her via Colombo, Male, Dubai or Doha, but those are expensive and she will have to travel alone which may not be safe."
Mr Shaji Philip, a social worker, said there is a huge pent-up demand for travel to India.
"I managed to put at least 30 people on Air India Express flights over the past month on compassionate grounds and after tickets were cancelled at the last minute," he said. "But I cannot do anything more as flights to high-demand places such as Kochi and Hyderabad are not available.
"I have taken up the issue with the Air India manager and he has assured me that more flights will be available soon."