KOLKATA: The agonizing suspense over the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 ER aircraft with 239 passengers and crew has left air travellers so rattled that several have cancelled travel plans till the mystery is solved. Those who cannot avoid travel are scurrying for insurance cover just in case something happens. "In the last few days, we have witnessed a sharp rise in purchase of travel insurance by fliers to South East Asia. The mystery surrounding the disappearance of flight MH370 that was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing appears to have triggered the panic purchase," said National Insurance Co general manager S Bhattacharya. While it is mandatory for travellers to America, Canada, UK and Australia to purchase medical insurance, those flying to South East Asia or Gulf rarely bought insurance. That trend, Bhattacharya hoped, would change from now on. "Insurance is a protection against ailments and mishaps that can be financially draining when one has to spend in foreign currency. In addition, the policy offers protection against a host of other unfortunate occurrences like inordinate flight delay, baggage loss, accident or even hijack," Bhattacharya pointed out. The cover on hijack distress allowance is an added one at National Insurance but is part of the basic plan at IffcoTokio and Bajaj Allianz. While a person can insure oneself against a plane accident for $10,000-$25,000 by paying a single premium of Rs 1,105-1,712, he or she can also get $50/day distress allowance for foursix days in case of hijack. Seven in 10 international passengers from Kolkata travel to the region, either on leisure or business or a combination of both, with Thailand the no.1 destination followed by Malaysia and Singapore. Travel Agents' Federation of India chairman Anil Punjabi, who has been advising passengers to purchase insurance, says fliers are scared. "Everyone is jittery. Unless the mystery over flight MH370 is resolved and we get a rational explanation, the sense of unease will remain. The situation was okay in the first few days because the aircraft was presumed to have crashed. But as the mystery remains unsolved and speculations do the rounds, the situation is becoming grave," he said. Many have simply lost the appetite for travel. Businesswoman Anita Nankani, a frequent traveler to South East Asia and Gulf, has just postponed her trip to Dubai because she does not feel confident about air travel at the moment. "I was supposed to go to Dubai but am extremely skeptical since the Malaysia Airlines flight's disappearance. How can such a large aircraft disappear in this age? I want to know what happened to the aircraft and the people in it. Did it crash? Has it been hijacked? Once the answer is out and we reconcile to the facts, I can resume traveling. Till then, I don't see flying as a leisure option," said Nankani. Vishal Jairath, South Asia head of VFS Global, a company that processes visa applications to Malaysia and 16 other countries, said they were yet to feel the ripple. "Travelers to the region would obviously be tense. It is an unforeseen event. It is the airlines and travel agents community that will face most of the queries," said Jairath, who returned from Kuala Lumpur barely two days before the flight disappeared on March 8. Senior citizens Vandana and Kumar Asvani had planned a trip to China and Kuala Lumpur but cancelled it. "I cannot accept what's happened and don't have the heart to take the risk. An accident can happen once in a blue moon but if an aircraft can disappear, there's no telling when there can be a repeat," said Kumar. Members of the travel trade industry fear the uncertainty may affect travel plans in the summer holiday season. While 70-80 passengers fly to Malaysia from Kolkata daily during the
off-peak season, it shoots up to 250-300 a day during peak period. It isn't just flights to Malaysia that will get hit but those to Thailand and Singapore as well because they are all around the Gulf of Siam and Andaman Sea, the hottest beach destinations in the region. Punjabi, who has been facing a barrage of queries from his clients, says he has no answers to offer for most of them. "I am as puzzled by the incident as they are. There is anxiety and uncertainty among passengers. And this isn't just among those travelling for the first time internationally. Even frequent fliers and businessmen are feeling the jitters. Since they can't avoid travel altogether, I am advising them to purchase insurance," said Punjabi.