“I really don’t [want] to leave the island; Cayman Islands was like my second home,” said Indian national Jeff Manik on Friday, after he waved goodbye to his friends at the Owen Roberts International Airport.
It was a bittersweet moment for Manik and many of the 270 Indian nationals leaving Grand Cayman on the first Indian airbridge flight organised by the Governor’s Office and Cayman Islands government.
A total of 330 passengers, 60 of whom were UK residents returning home, boarded the British Airways flight bound for London.
The flight was the first leg of the Cayman India airbridge. The second leg, which was operated by Qatar Airways, departed Heathrow for Chennai, India on Saturday.
Manik, like many of the Indian nationals who departed on Friday, lost his job in the hospitality industry.
He told the Cayman Compass that while he loved Cayman, he had to go home, because it was becoming a struggle for him.
“[There] was no choice… left for me, otherwise I would have never left,” he said. “There were much more plans [I had] for myself. Everybody lost a job also. I was working for Westin in the restaurant department and all these years only working for one company.”
However, on the brighter side, Manik said, he will now be able to spend time with his family.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “You know, staying home for four months with no job, nothing, it was very tough time for us. Finally, we are all going and we get to go at this moment, so I’m very excited to see my family.”
Amrita Singh also shared the same excitement to return home to her relatives.
However, with India’s total number of COVID-19 cases at 244, 814, as of Sunday, she said she is worried.
“It’s a mixed feeling, kind of because India also has a lot of [cases]. I’m from Mumbai, where there’s a lot of cases,” she said.
Singh said when the passengers get to Chennai they will not be allowed to head straight home.
“We have to quarantine for seven days in Chennai and then go to Mumbai and quarantine for seven days also. It’s going to exciting to meet our family, but also leaving [Cayman] feels like leaving home. But at least we are happy, at least we got the flight,” she said.
It was a busy day for the airport Friday as the India flight, as well as a Miami evacuation flight, departed.
Prior to the flight, the lines leading into the departure hall stretched the length of the atrium.
While passengers lined up outside to be cleared for entrance into the airport, their friends and colleagues gathered near the airport car park waving goodbye.
Some shed tears as they embraced each other and wished the travellers a safe flight.
“I never thought that the India flight [would] be arranged because there was a lot of chaos going on,” Singh said. “They had booked the flight for India in-between, and then I think they cancelled it because [of] a few laws from India that… British Airways had to follow.”
For Rajesh Thangarajan, heading home to his native Tamilnadu carries special significance.
“My wife is pregnant back home. She’ll be delivering in this month – that’s in the July 3rd week – so I’ll be going back to see my new baby,” he said, excitedly.
Challenges marred initial flight
While Friday’s plane left with virtual ease, arranging it was not that easy, according to Governor Martyn Roper, who described it as the “most challenging” flight his office had had to arrange.
Head of the Governor’s Office Matthew Forbes told the Compass Friday that it was the fifth evacuation flight arranged out of the Governor’s Office. It took a lot of effort and diplomatic finesse to broker the transport that was headed halfway across the world.
“This has probably been the most challenging [flight] for a number of reasons,” said Forbes. “Firstly, I think because of the distance that [they’ve] got to travel. We’ve also had to use two different airlines to do this… because of some of the regulations of flying into India.”
Last month, the initial Cayman-to-India airbridge plan hit a snag after the evacuation flight was put on hold. This was following an impasse between British Airways and the Indian government over stringent requirements for personal protective equipment for all flight crews coming into the country.
British Airways is among a number of airlines which have said they are not willing to comply with the operating procedures required by Indian authorities, which include wearing full hazmat suits and face shields.
Forbes said a workaround was found when the flight was split between two airlines.
“We’ve also been working very closely with the Indian High Commission in Kingston as well. They’ve been doing a great job helping the passengers, and helping to get the permissions that we need.
“We’ve also had to work and use the foreign office network as well to get the permissions to do this. So, we’ve worked very closely with the British High Commission in New Delhi and also with [the] Deputy High Commission in Chennai as well,” he said.
Rakesh Baxani, vice president of the Indian Cayman community group, said he was pleased that the flight was finally about to take off without a hitch.
He said the group, which was also heavily involved in the effort to ensure the out-of-work Indian nationals did not go hungry, will be working with the remaining nationals to assist with another flight, if needed.
“There are a lot of people who haven’t left [on] the flight because they still have hope that maybe the industry will open up and they will get back the work,” Baxani said. “If or when the time comes, we will have to work along the situation as it is.
“Our major responsibility was to really make sure that our guys who [needed] help with food got [it] and the guys who needed help with going back to India [could go], and that’s happened.”
Forbes commended Indian businessman Harry Chandi for his valiant effort to assist those who departed for their home country, including using his own credit card facility to pay for tickets for some who did not have the ability to do so. He also provided sandwiches for the flight.
“It’s the first opportunity we’ve had to help take a large number of Indian nationals back home to their families in India,” Forbes said on Friday. “The whole operation has been a long time coming, but we’re very pleased to be here and to see that actually [completed with] a full aircraft ready to go back to London.”
Chandi, he said, also held 25 Zoom meetings trying to assist in sorting out the flight and tickets.
Ten members of the UK satellite military team that was deployed in Cayman over the last few months also returned to London on Friday’s flight.
Financial Crimes consultant Simon Baker, who has been working with the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service Financial Crimes Unit, was also on the London flight.
He said he was looking forward to returning to his family.
“I’m in two weeks quarantine at our home [upon return], so apart from the fact [that] my wife has many plans for me to do some gardening, it’s a bit of a rest and relaxation for me,” Baker said. “Bit of a change from dealing with the sort of global anti-money laundering-type work.”
The Governor’s Office, Forbes said, is now working on two flights to the UK which will be made available for students and their families later this month and in August.