MUMBAI: For Air India officials and passengers, a major cause of concern with the ongoing repatriation flights to and from different countries are the visa regulations and immigration policies of different lands. Late on Thursday night, Air India was informed by an official from an Indian ministry that US visa rules have changed to restrict passengers with student visa and Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card holders from entering the US.
Based on the information, Air India held back a student who were to travel on the 3 am Delhi-San Francisco flight on Friday. However, hours later, it has emerged that there are no such visa rule change pertaining to students or OCI card holders.
“The government official who called us last night to inform about the purported US visa change was informed by an official from a ministry. The said government official instructed us to brief our call centre about the change and take other appropriate action,” said an Air India official, speaking about the last-minute confusion information caused by the information.
TOI had put out a report in its Friday’s edition about US visa change based on the information it received late on Thursday night from a highly-placed Air India official. TOI followed up with Air India, only to learn that the airline had acted on an information that was not factual. The Air India spokesperson put TOI on to an airline official who clarified the issue.
When Air India received the information, passengers for its US flight had already started checking in. “Our airport official stopped a student from boarding the May 8, 3 am AI-173 from Delhi to San Francisco. He was travelling to the US for the first time. Based on the information we had then, we had reasons to believe that he would not be permitted entry by the US immigration,” the Air India official added.
However the next day, Air India learnt that US visa rules hadn’t been changed and there were no changes with respect to student visa or OCI card holders. It was a case of miscommunication.
“Since last week of February, when countries started imposing COVID-led travel restrictions there has been quite a bit of confusion over particular visa requirements, whether passengers of a certain nationality are allowed to board a flight to a certain country, whether a passenger who did a transit halt at a particular country will be allowed to fly to another etc. So we acted according to the information we received last night.”
“The student will be put on another flight to the US,” the official added.
To clarify, students and OCI card holders can book and travel on Air India repatriation flights to countries like the US.
“Currently, as we speak, there are no visa regulations which state that students and OCI card holders will be denied entry. The information we received yesterday was misleading on that aspect. But if the US immigration officer decides to deny a passenger entry, because, say the university the passenger is admitted to is still shut down due to COVID or any other such reason, then we, as an airline aren’t responsible,” he added.
However, if any paasenger is denied entry, he/she “will have to pay the deportation cost and Air India will fly them back to India as soon as possible,” he said.
It is to insulate themselves from such possibilities that the airline has made it clear in its conditions for repatriation flights that if your travel is cancelled at any point of time due to any eligibility criteria then the airline shouldn’t be held responsible and you will need to pay for your return trip.
Bringing back deported passengers at such times isn’t easy as India-bound flights are largely full. “As an airline, we have been reiterating to each passenger to check with the visa requirements for the country concerned. Our responsibility is not check passport, visa. We follow the directions we get from our government agencies,” said the Air India official.