Flight Of Faith

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Reuniting 10,000 families, a dream for Sonthalia brothers of Gaura Travel that was not possibly believed to be achievable a few months ago

Those were chaotic days with people from India stuck in Australia, unable to return home as the pandemic forced the borders to be closed. Then to their rescue came Gaura Travel, who flew out 10,000 people thus reuniting 10,000 families back in India.   

The size of the gathering belied the enormity of the occasion. The joy in the air was palpable and could be cut with a knife. On February 5th, 2021, Ashwini Sonthalia and his brother Abhishek of Gaura Travel streamed into the room at ‘Mint O Mustard of Dockland’ in Melbourne to commemorate a feat that they wouldn’t possibly have believed to be achievable a few months ago, in July last year to be precise. But it did.

Their Gaura Travel had just flown their 10,000th passenger back home to India from Melbourne. Akash Vijay Rajput, a student who had completed his five-year studies. He was booked to fly to Mumbai in economy class, but Gaura Travel gave him a free upgrade into business class; he was a special customer after all for the travel operator, marking a milestone that came about through sheer grit and a never-say-die attitude at a time when the Covid pandemic is still to become a thing of the past.

“He was excited,” Abhishek said of the 10,000th passenger. And why not, his was the 10,000 family that Gaura Travel reunited back in India.

The brothers narrated heart-touching anecdotes of a few among the 10,000 people left stranded in Australia after the pandemic struck and India, like almost all other countries across the world, sealed their borders to keep the invisible enemy away from their shores.

Speaking at the get-together, the Consul General of India in Melbourne, Mr Raj Kumar, reminisced about the days when Gaura Travel started their chartered flights to Delhi and other parts of India following the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM), which the Indian government launched to help people who were stuck across the world, including Australia, reach home. “With Gaura Travel, the operation went like a breeze,” Mr Kumar said heaping praise on the siblings who started the business about 14 years ago.

Statistically, 18,000 passengers flew out from Melbourne. 15,000 by chartered flights and 3,000 under VBM with Air India flying 17 sorties. Of the 15,000, Gaura Travel accounted for 10,000.

From left: Mrs Chloe & Ashwini Sonthalia, Mr Raj Kumar, Mrs Renu Sonthalia & Abhishek Sonthalia

” It was a tremendous job, ” Mr. Kumar said not holding back the unadulterated appreciation.

“Amazing figures,” exulted Mr Arun Sharma- Chairman, Celebrate India, while commending Ashwini and Abhishek for the “humane face” they imparted to their business when it was most required with the pandemic breathing down the neck, separating the near and dear ones and casting all in uncertainty.

He attributed this aspect to the siblings’ strong grounding in Indian values.

“You should be proud of them,” he said addressing their mother, Mrs Renu Sonthaliawho was also present, to be greeted by a round of generous applause.

When his turn came to speak, Ashwini recalled the tumultuous days when panic gripped the people finding themselves suddenly cut off from their families in India, not knowing when they would be reunited.

“We were attending to phone calls through the day from people anxious to know how or when they could get back. We decided to fight it out, not give in,” he said.

Abhishek remembered how he and his team had become an extension of the families of those travelling not mere travel agent.

” We would be there at the airport attending to all the needs of the travellers, from carrying their bags, pushing wheelchairs, providing them water bottles, translating since many couldn’t speak English,” he said.

Abhishek said that the idea of starting the chartered flights came from Dr. Jagvinder Singh Virk, who had operated the first chartered flight from Sydney in April. He inspired them to do the same.

Abhishek Sonthalia & Dr Virk

 Then they got in touch with Mr Kumar. Abhishek recalled Mr Kumar saying, “You will get plenty of opportunities to make money but take this as an opportunity to get blessings.”

For the brothers, that was inspiration enough to go ahead.

In the 14 years that they have been in business, Gaura Travel has flown more than a million passengers, but the 10,000 were indeed very special.

It was not just about flying 10,000 individuals but reuniting 10,000 families.

The knife came out eventually and sliced through the cake to celebrate the occasion; no prizes for guessing that the cake resembled an airplane standing on a runway. Ready to fly.

So, what next, someone asked of Ashwini.

Aptly the reply was, “25,000”.

What more would you expect from someone who always thinks ahead.

Flight of faith, shall we say?

By Tonee Sethi