Air bubbles are special bilateral agreements between countries to allow a certain mutually agreed number of scheduled flights to operate between the countries, flown by airlines from those countries.
These flights are on a specially approved and published schedule and can be viewed and booked through the airline website, app, and traditional and online travel agents just like normal flights in the pre-COVID era.
There are no reports of any issues in booking these flights through any of the channels, it seems to work just as well as in the pre-COVID days.
VBM flights, in contrast, are not on a recurring schedule. They are special one-off or ad-hoc flights arranged by the Indian government and mostly operated by Air India or Air India Express, though other Indian carriers also are allocated some VBM flights to operate from time to time.
Information on these flights is usually published by the airlines on their website and on social media, and also usually circulated by the Indian High Commission and agents in the countries from which these flights will be operating.
These flights can also be bought through all direct and indirect channels, though reports indicate Air India flights tend to sell-out on their direct channels (website or app) within minutes but are still usually available through some travel agents, sometimes at illegally inflated fares.
The approval process for VBM flights is:
You wait for their approval email and carry that with you.
Note for flights out of India, the restriction is being enforced so for example Virgin or Lufthansa cannot fly Indian passport holders on connecting flights beyond the UK or the EU respectively, even if you have a ticket for it.
You will be turned away when you come to the airport to check-in. People have been turned away, so please be aware.
The one form that must be completed online prior to departure for all flights to India, whether air bubble or VBM, is the “Air Suvidha Self Reporting Form” that is on newdelhiairport.in (see image below, you can select the form through the drop-down menu on the top right of the home page).
This form must be filled prior to departure, ideally not less than 72 hours prior to departure.
You will receive an acknowledgement / approval for travel within a few hours.
Note that though the form is hosted by newdelhiairport.in (who have presumably volunteered to administer this process for all arrivals), this form is to be completed for all India arrivals into any Indian point of entry, not just for New Delhi arrivals.
This is at times a source of confusion, and indeed it would be clearer if the forms were hosted on a neutral site, say airsuvidha.com, or on the Ministry of Aviation’s own website.
A second form that you may have to fill prior to your departure for India is the “Apply for Exemption” form, which is required ONLY IF you are applying for exemption from institutional quarantine.
Note that all passengers have to do 14 days quarantine upon entry into India.
Unless you have an exemption, the first 7 days has to be at a quarantine location or hotel approved by the Indian government, and it is at your cost. The second 7 days is home quarantine.
However, if you qualify for Exemption, you can spend all 14 days in home quarantine and avoid institutional or hotel quarantine.
It is important to note that NO ONE gets exempt from quarantine altogether – 14 days quarantine is a must for all!
For VBM flights only – you will also have to get approval from the India High Commission (IHC) to travel, as described earlier
The most common exemption is from taking an RT-PCR COVID test (and not an antigen test) within 96 hours (4 days) of departure of your flight to India.
If you are taking a flight via a connecting point, say New York to Delhi via London, it has to be within 96 hours prior to departure of your London – Delhi flight, and not your New York – London flight.
Exemptions can also be requested for pregnant women, medical emergencies, etc.- see the Exemption link on the website for details.
You can also choose to do a COVID test upon arrival at Mumbai or Delhi airport, in which case you do not fill the exemption form in advance.
You just have to take the test upon arrival and follow instructions from airport staff thereafter.
So, to summarize, assuming you intend to take an RT-PCR test prior to departure, you should:
If your Exemption application is rejected though your RT-PCR test was negative, you can re-apply with additional documentation or explanation and hope for the best.
If still rejected, you can show the COVID negative report on arrival and request exemption.
If it is not accepted, you can do the RT-PCR test again upon arrival after baggage claim at Mumbai and Delhi airports.
In addition, airlines may email you other forms to complete in advance – this is airline-specific. Ensure you complete these prior to your travel.
Masks are required at all times at all airports in India and abroad, and while on the flight except when eating or drinking.
In addition, some airlines will give you a face shield as well, though this is optional in most cases for foreign airlines.
Full body PPE suits are not typically given or required, though they may be required for some VBM flights.
Note than other than a mask, you do not need to carry any PPE with you – it will be provided if required at the gate or on-board.
Apparently, Air India is giving the bare minimum to eat or drink even on the long non-stop US-India flights, and not providing pillows or blankets either.
Foreign carriers and Vistara (which is operating London-Delhi and Dubai – India bubble flights) are providing more substantial food and beverage service, and well as blankets and in most cases, pillows.
If you are flying Air India, please plan accordingly.