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Here's How Air India Has Helped Hundreds Of Stranded Indians Amidst The Coronavirus Pandemic



Mass evacuations are nothing new for Indiaâs flag carrier airline. Way back in 1990, Air India helped save over 100,000 lives by coordinating the Gulf War evacuation, a mass-scale effort that lasted 59 days and cemented the airline in record books and even the silver screen in 2016âs Airlift.

Medical evacuations are quite a different ballgame, however. Earlier this February, flights 1348 and 1349 from Wuhan to Delhi marked a major achievement for Air India, as it successfully planned and executed its first ever medical evacuation across the airlineâs 73-year history. Hereâs how it went down, and how Air India plans to conduct itâs next coronavirus mission to and from Tel Aviv, Israel.

The Game Plan

Coronavirus: Air India Rescue Missions © Reuters

Caption:The aircraft used to carry the mission out were a pair of Boeing 747s, staffed by 15 cabin crew members and two sets of pilots.

Presiding over the Wuhan mission and present on both flights was Captain Amitabh Singh, Director of Operations, Air India - the very man behind wartime evacuations from Iraq, Jordan & Kuwait. Despite having barely a day to rescue 647 stranded Indians, Singh was confident in the capabilities of his 20-man team. "Fortunately,â remarked Singh, âsince Air India has always been involved in a lot of evacuations, we have a team that is always ready and we just had to pick up the phone and tell the team that this is the operation."

The first challenge came as a result of the Chinese authoritiesâ airport schedule, which forced Air India to plan for an 8PM CST landing - meaning that time was of the essence for the departure crew in Delhi. âBoth the flights left Delhi at 12.50 in the afternoon,â continued Singh. âThe first time the aircraft was on the ground for six-and-a-half hours in Wuhan while on the second flight we stayed for eight hours and 15 minutes. Those who were operating the special flights were only allowed to go till the aerobridge.â

What Happened In Wuhan

Coronavirus: Air India Rescue Missions © Reuters

Caption: Staff wearing protective suits wait to check passengers boarding flights in Wuhan.

While getting to Wuhan was the easy part, Captain Singhâs main challenges would stem from the fact that the Chinese city was under total lockdown - meaning that no supplies, medical equipment or spares for the aircraft would be available to him. The solution was simple - Captain Singh manned the aircraft not just with cabin crew and a team of equipped medical professionals - the aircraft also carried engineering staff with spares, commercial staff to calculate load once the airliner was ready for takeoff, a pair of doctors and dispatchers who had to coordinate with Air Traffic Control.

After landing in Wuhan, the local Indian Consulate began to coordinate with Captain Singhâs team - sending evacuees in batches to the airport as the aircraft was refuelled and system checks were conducted. Finally, a systematic three-layer check was carried out by the medical team before allowing any of the evacuees home - flights 1348 and 1349 were clearly not interested in taking any chances.

In Flight Clinic

Coronavirus: Air India Rescue Missions © Reuters

Caption: A view of the Boeing 747 carrying out an emergency stop at Mumbai airport.

Hereâs where the unique design of the Boeing 747 came into play, and why it was chosen by Captain Singh for the mission - take a look at the photograph above. Behind the smaller Boeing 777, the 747 looms at a towering 64 feet, owing to its double decker design. 

While the upper floor on the aircraft was reserved for the pilots and cabin crew, the first-class section underneath the cockpit was reserved for doctors and engineers. The doctors for both flights were separately selected from Delhiâs Ram Manohar Lohia and Safdarjung Hospitals. Even after the stringent screening process, the doctors set up a makeshift clinic in the aerobridge which carried all the evacuees - giving the passengers information on their situation and instructing them on how to wear facemasks and the hygiene standards they would have to maintain in order to curb the virusâ spread.

Soon after, India would repeat this feat by rescuing 263 Indians from Italy, which has the second highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world.

The Tel Aviv Operation

Coronavirus: Air India Rescue Missions © Reuters

Caption: A single orthodox Jewish man goes through Tel Avivâs deserted airport.

Following Prime Minister Modiâs lockdown announcement this Tuesday, the Indian Pilots Guild and Indian Commercial Pilots Association wrote a joint letter to the PMâs office, asserting their support and willingness to carry out operations regardless of the pandemicâs scale. "Air India as the national carrier has always been proud to fulfill a myriad of diverse and challenging missions, whenever required by the government to fulfill this obligation," it read. 

The letter echoes the sentiment behind a mission thatâs currently underway at the time of writing this piece - flying 300 stranded Israelis to Tel Aviv, and returning with Indian nationals stuck in the Israeli capital. While the number of Indians weâll be seeing at Delhi airport after the flightâs return was not divulged, the aircraft chosen was a Boeing 777, which as per Air Indiaâs specifications, can fit upto 368 passengers.

Air Indiaâs next evac mission is to evacuate about 20,000 Indians stranded in Saudi Arabia, which has 900 cases confirmed - officials have not shared any more details. Itâll prove to be the airlineâs biggest evacuation challenge since the Gulf War.

Thankfully, we definitely have the best man for the job.

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