Coronavirus: Kiwis flying back to New Zealand from India this week - but at a huge cost

By Jordan Bond for RNZ

Almost a month after other countries started repatriating their citizens from India, the New Zealand Government is this week getting its first plane out of India off the ground.

The first flight is due to leave New Delhi this Friday, at a cost of $5500 per person, with another two in the following week.

The United Kingdom has already completed or announced 24 repatriation flights, the first more than two weeks ago, at a price of around $1300. Germany started four weeks ago and had 12 flights out of India for its citizens from seven different cities.

A group of Australian citizens has chartered five flights out, returning more than 2000 of their compatriots home with another three flights planned.

One of the organisers was Brendon Hempel, a pilot of 20 years and now in the plane chartering business. He offered the same service to get New Zealanders out more cheaply, but was turned down by the Government.

The ticket price was $2300, less than half of the $5500 New Zealanders are expected to pay on the Government-chartered flight.

"We're talking about families of four paying up to $22,000 to get home," Hempel said.

Along with co-organiser Simon Quinn, Hempel managed to gain the necessary approvals to land and take off even while international flights are barred from India, with help from the Australian High Commission.

The High Commission could not endorse the flights, but helped get the necessary permits for flying and for its citizens to travel to the airports.

Don Stuart, a retiree from Waihi Beach was one of the people to take up Hempel's offer to get to Australia.

He and his wife Marian flew into Melbourne and on to Auckland the same day. He said he has no doubt they'd still be in India otherwise.

The flights would be on Lion Air, a large airline in South East Asia which has had a mixed history with safety, including a Boeing MAX crash in 2018 killing all on board and having been barred from EU airspace until 2016. It's one of South East Asia's largest low-cost airlines.

Hempel said he has no qualms working with Lion Air, and wanted to offer Kiwis a cheaper option. He said using Air New Zealand direct is an expensive option, and even though the Government is absorbing most of the cost, passing on $5500 would put some New Zealanders in debt.

"I understand the priorities of Governments ... is to give flights to the national carrier, but in this case it's genuinely at the expense of Kiwis trying to get home.

"The [New Zealand] Government may feel its hands are tied but they have an option presented to them on a silver platter."

On the Facebook group 'Kiwis stuck in India', there's been gratitude that flights have been organised but disquiet at the price.

Lovinder Singh Buttar said he's considering staying in India and hoping commercial flights start soon, instead of stumping up with $15,000 to get his family of three home.

In a poll on the page asking if people are planning to take the flight, 140 said 'No', 85 said 'Yes, if the price is renegotiated down', and 50 said 'Yes'.

It's unclear how many of those people did turn down the offer. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had 1250 people express interest in the flights, from a total of 1922 New Zealanders registered in India.

In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the Government chose Air New Zealand because they couldn't guarantee privately chartered flights would actually go ahead, and one of the carriers has a 'mixed safety record'.

"As they are run on a purely commercial basis, flights could be cancelled if they are only partially full. Any passengers booked on such flights stand to lose their money, generating additional financial hardship and difficulty," a spokesperson said.

It also said using Air New Zealand allowed streamlined planning with the other agencies involved in the repatriation.

"Government-assisted options enable a more cohesive All-of-Government approach with respect to agencies responsible for assessing and processing in-bound flights e.g. Immigration New Zealand, Ministry of Health, NZ Police and NZ Customs.

"There are a number of operational complexities that must worked through to charter flights. These include negotiating contracts with airlines, standing up a booking platform and managing requests for financial assistance from New Zealanders.

"There are also Government complexities, such as seeking flight and ground transportation approvals from the Indian Government. We must also ensure that the public health of New Zealanders is maintained both on the flight and when a charter flight arrives back in New Zealand, this includes our capacity to ensure that all arrivals are able to complete two weeks' quarantine."

The ministry said the vast majority of New Zealanders are centred around New Delhi and Mumbai, where the three flights leave from. It said it's aware of New Zealanders in the south and east of the country, such as Chennai and Kolkata, and working on other options for them.