Gaura Travel is the first Indian travel agency in Australia to organise chartered repatriation flights for stranded Indians in Australia, longing to return home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brothers Ashwini and Abhishek Sonthalia of Melbourne are travel professionals who run a successful travel agency called ‘Gaura Travel’. Recent events have made their company kick customer service up a notch to fill the need of the hour. Their innovation and swift organisational skills were instrumental in coordinating the repatriation charter flights for many stranded Indians in Australia. This gratifying gesture has earned them countless blessing and respect throughout the community.
How This Venture Came To Be
Gaura Travel was receiving countless requests from customers yearning to return to India, concerned by the fact that no flights were operating at the time. Ashwini and Abhishek began research for possibilities, including meeting with local consulates to explore extraordinary measures. They were finally able to get consent to organise flights, and contacted Singapore Airlines – the best airline to travel from Australia to India. The company came aboard, and the plan came to fruition.
The Impact Of COVID-19
The Sonthalia brothers always kept focused on the long-term picture, even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. They described how the travel industry had been “brought to a kneel, like a death sentence”, and that they were receiving no new bookings, only customers asking for refunds. “For us it was a time where we could actually stand for our customers”, says Ashwini explaining the company’s focus on customer welfare rather than monetary gain. Due to the pandemic, the team in India were in lockdown, and there were only five staff members in the Australian office taking phone calls, applying for refunds, and making sure customer queries were met. There was no time for panic! A remarkable achievement is that despite the pandemic, no employees were laid off, and with the whole team intact the company continues to deliver top-notch results.
Organising the repatriation flights was no easy feat but resulted in many Indians returning home. Gaura Travel is probably the first travel agency to take such an initiative during the pandemic. Since the last weekend of June, there has been no time for days off and the company has received over a thousand calls per day. There has also been a lot of red tape to work through. First, the Indian state where the flight arrives has to give a clearance check and ensure there are facilities for quarantine accommodation. Then the local consulate in Australia must agree, followed by a final seal of approval from India for its landing. This is all before the bookings and ticket sales commence. The planes arrive empty from Singapore to Melbourne or Sydney, and there is an inherent risk factor about whether or not all seats will be filled. However, it has been assured that the price remains fixed regardless of this. Protective equipment is provided to every traveller, and there are restrictions on interactions between crew and passengers.
Four flights have already brought 1440 stranded travellers’ home from Melbourne and Sydney to India throughout July and early August. There are also two further flights scheduled – one on 7 August from Melbourne to Amritsar, and one on 8 August from Melbourne to Mumbai. It is no problem if those making bookings are not computer savvy, as the Gaura Travel team provides help for each and every step over the phone. They have even provided a refund tracker for customers trying to chase down refunds from cancelled flights.
A Rewarding Process
Ashwini and Abhishek have been at the airport for each of these flights to help out. On a recent flight, 93 out of 285 people required wheelchairs – and they achieved the outstanding feat of ensuring these were provided, with a mere 30-minute flight delay. People have been sending them pictures of their parents begging for help returning them home. They have gone above and beyond to provide translation services for the elderly, corresponding with the department of health and airlines to answer queries. They provide bottled water, assist, and assure them and help people who are anxiety-ridden, have health problems or struggle with heavy luggage. Despite all the stress, they feel blessed to be a medium for this important venture and have received expressions of gratitude from many.
There have been countless meaningful encounters for the Gaura team. People have been travelling back due to dire medical conditions and being separated from family members. Due to the current environment of high unemployment rates, many have opted or needed to return home. There have been cases where immediate family members have passed away, and returning home is needed for closure, and attendance of funeral rites. Regardless of the reason, the team at Gaura Travel have felt emotional, sentimental, and humbled to help passengers return home. They strive to always put service and passengers first, and, undoubtedly, the many Indians they have helped will remember this forever.
Gaura Travel is definitely here to stay, having been around twelve years, serving over 100,000 customers and organising countless flights.
By Monisha Iswaran