The queues and tedium of airport travel just got longer, thanks to a new hygiene protocol at airports. Check-in staff observe departing passengers for sniffles, runny noses, and coughs. Coaches taking passengers to and from aircraft are washed down daily with alcohol-based cleaning agents. Infrared thermometers greet all international passengers arriving at Indian airports.
The screening of passengers from China had begun on January 17 and was later expanded to cover another 13 affected countries but with the detection of 39 cases, the government has escalated the preventive measures at all airports. Orders for universal screening were issued on Thursday and municipal and state doctors were hastily summoned to help with the task.
Passengers arriving at Mumbai and Delhi airports had to wait in a queue for up to 40 minutes for the pre-immigration health check. By Friday, however, the queues had shortened and the waiting time for most passengers had reduced to 5-15 minutes as additional doctors and paramedics were deputed for checks. But on the same day, the process was tightened further when the government ordered separate passages at customs and immigration and separate baggage belts for passengers arriving from 12 ‘vulnerable’ countries. The airports have yet to implement this directive.
"It took 10-12 minutes to complete the health screening. It was not crowded but the airport authorities should provide separate counters for senior citizens," said Saleel Mohidekar who arrived from the US in Mumbai on Friday.
A US citizen who also arrived on Friday said Mumbai airport needed to provide hand sanitisers and wipes to foreign nationals who are finger printed on arrival.
"Earlier, we had 42 doctors and paramedics in three shifts and now the number has been increased to 136. Additional staff is being made available during the night which sees a lot of international arrivals. We have 25 infrared thermometers which is more than sufficient," said an official at Mumbai airport.
At Delhi airport, two thermal scanners and 33 temperature-measuring devices are being used. At Bengaluru airport, medical students have been roped in to help.
“Although the medical staff of 44 doctors and paramedics is enough to cater to the current demand, we have asked the state government for more paramedic staff and it is under consideration. We are getting all help from the state government”, said Kaushik Bhattacharjee, director at NSCB international airport, Kolkata.
He said the number of passengers had fallen, from around 5,000 international passengers every day to 3,800.
Although Mumbai airport has seen the number of foreigners arriving fall by 50 per cent in the last few days owing to travel bans and flight cancellations, it still had to screen over 12,700 passengers on Friday.
Bans are flying so thick and fast that airlines are struggling to keep up with the rules. On Saturday, a Jazeera Airways aircraft from Kuwait to Mumbai was forced to turn back one hour into the flight because of a Kuwaiti government order suspending flights to India for one week.
While the cancellation of flights has eased the workload of doctors, they face other challenges in that the screening regulations and rules for disease control are frequently revised, as are the self-declaration forms being given to passengers.
"We were given a form by the cabin crew on the flight. But when we landed, health officials asked us to fill in another form. It was a bit annoying. Luckily there were few passengers and the screening got over in five minutes," said Sigrid Eliasen who arrived from Denmark in Mumbai on Friday.
A Delhi International Airport Limited spokesperson said new guidelines are being discussed with stake holders.
"We are already following government guidelines for medical screening of all passengers arriving on international flights, in line with the airport health organisation’s requirements. The new guidelines are being discussed with all the stakeholders and a trial run will be taken up very soon," he said.
The spokesperson said it was too early to assess the impact on passenger traffic. “Our domestic traffic in February 2020 has grown in double digits vis-a-vis last February while international traffic has had a negligible impact, primarily on routes to and from China," he said.
(Aneesh Phadnis, Arindam Majumder, Avishek Rakshit, and Samreen Ahmad contributed to this report)