Russia-Ukraine war: Life without a national carrier; how will India run humanitarian missions?

Ajay AwtaneyUpdated: Saturday, February 26, 2022, 08:20 AM IST
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Air India has led the way in bringing home hundreds of thousands of stranded Indians from many conflict zones / Representational image |

The role of Air India as the carrier that is called to bring home our varied diaspora across the globe in times of trouble is well storied. While Airlift, the movie, told everyone the story of how Air India led the way in bringing home hundreds of thousands of Indians from Kuwait when Iraq invaded the country, there have been more instances.

In 2020, India had also pressed Air India into service to bring home Indians stuck in Wuhan in China as the city witnessed the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Air India single-handedly ran the mission to bring home Indians under the directions of the government of India until other carriers joined in the Vande Bharat Mission. Evacuation from Afghanistan as the country fell to the Taliban was another one.

Will rescue operator image change with Air India privatisation?

Will Air India’s position as India’s pre-eminent rescue operator change now that Air India has been privatised? At least it does not look like this will be the case immediately. When it came to operating flights to Kyiv, Ukraine to rescue Indians who had to be brought back to the country, Air India was the first airline to be called.

Air India was able to operate one successful flight earlier in the week but had to turn around and head home as they mounted the second mission. A notice to airmen (NOTAM) had been issued closing Ukrainian airspace to civil aircraft, and that meant Air India or any other airline for that matter could not fly over to pick up their citizens.

Why Air India is called first for rescue missions

There is more than one reason for Air India being called first. Air India continues to remain the only carrier in India with enough widebody aircraft needed to fly people back home. In a mission that involves rescue operations and heading into dangerous or conflicted terrain, any operator needs to be able to bring back as many people as possible in one go.

This is because there are only so many opportunities that one will get to operate an evacuation mission in a conflict zone. Vistara only has two widebodies, and Air India has 49 of them. Air India obviously have more resources to carry out an evacuation without affecting normal airline operations.

The second reason, and the more important one, is more intangible. Air India has all the experience in running these missions for many years. Onboard AI1947, which evacuated 242 people from Ukraine on Tuesday, Air India had sent five pilots, along with 18 cabin crew and three engineers, to take care of just about any eventuality in case it occurred while on the ground in Kyiv. The mission was well charted out, and Air India was in and out of Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport in less than 90 minutes.

Amongst the pilots on board were Air India pilots who had earlier flown missions for Air India to Benghazi, Libya in 2009 as well.

Not for a minute am I casting aspersion on the ability of any other Indian carrier to operate such a humanitarian mission. The Government of India can recruit or order (under the Aircraft Act 1934, section 6) any airline in India to execute a mission and support them with the diplomatic assistance required to operate such a mission. They have done this, indeed, during the COVID-19 pandemic (not under their statutory powers, to be clear).

After a point of time having Air India run operations to fly people in and out of India, the Government of India did open it up to the other Indian airlines as well. But by then, there were set systems and processes, perhaps set up by the Government of India’s External Affairs Ministry and Ministry of Civil Aviation with inputs and experience of Air India.

While force majeure is unpredictable and aviation is a primary tool of diplomacy, as things stand at the moment, then, I feel Air India will continue to be the primary port of call for the Government of India when any disaster strikes and an evacuation mission is required. Unless the government decides to send in the assets of the Indian Air Force, which might not be a preferred option since most evacuations are conducted as a peace operation. The only difference here might be, that the Government of India might actually have to pay commercial rates for these missions going forward.

(The author writes about Indian Aviation on livefromalounge.com and tweets from @LiveFromALounge)

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