As tensions between Russia and Ukraine rose, the Tata-owned Air India had announced three special flights to Kyiv, the capital of the East European country, from New Delhi, but only one could successfully bring back Indian nationals. The second had to turn midway over Iran as the NOTAM or notice to air missions for airspace closure kicked in and the armed conflict began, which meant that the third flight had to be aborted before it even took off. While politics took centre stage, the Indian government worked with Ukraine’s neighbours to help evacuate Indians who made it to the land border.
The government has also decided to send senior ministers to countries in Europe to oversee the situation on the ground and expedite the transfer of Indians back home. In this effort, more airlines have jumped in, with IndiGo already announcing a flight each to Budapest and Bucharest, SpiceJet announcing one flight, Air India Express joining in and the possibility of Vistara operating as well.
Earlier, as a government-owned entity, such evacuation efforts were done by Air India. But with the airline now privatised, the government is left with the tiny airline Alliance Air, which operates only ATRs that cannot fly this distance and have limited seats. Section 6 of The Aircraft Act, 1934, talks about the power of the government in an emergency. Subsection (1) (d) states that it can “direct that any aircraft or class of aircraft, or any aerodrome, aircraft factory, flying school or club, or place where aircraft are manufactured, repaired or kept, together with any machinery, plant, material or things used for the operation, manufacture, repair or maintenance of aircraft shall be delivered, either forthwith or within a specified time, to such authority and in such manner as b[it] may specify in the order, to be at the disposal of d[Government] for the public service”/.
The government has not had a need to invoke these provisions since airlines are agreeing to help on their own. In this case, the airlines have limited challenges since they aren’t operating in a war zone, which means the lessors and/or insurance providers do not have anything to complain about.
Will this impact other operations?
With airlines’ assets being deployed for these operations, the question in everybody’s mind is whether their domestic or other international flight will be affected. The answer is most likely no. Air traffic in India has not returned to pre-COVID levels. The last week saw airlines operate an average of 71 percent of pre-COVID flights, which means that all aircraft are not being utilised. Also, scheduled international operations are suspended until further notice.
This means airlines have additional aircraft to operate such evacuation or relief missions without impacting their published schedule of domestic flights or those international flights that are part of the air bubble agreement.
However, these operations are crew-intensive. Ad-hoc operations see crews being ferried to operate the return leg or be based at a place which is not a regular destination, which means more personnel are engaged in such missions than would normally be needed to operate scheduled flights. This can thus have an impact on crew duty time limitations which could lead to plans going haywire for some.
Government-owned carrier is not needed
The biggest opposition to the privatisation of Air India was from a section that believed not having a national carrier jeopardises efforts during evacuation. Ironic as it may seem, that situation arose within a month of the Tata group taking control of Air India after a successful bid last year.
While the now privately-held airline displayed the same zeal as in the past to join the evacuation mission, this time around more carriers have joined in the effort. If all the missions charted by airlines go as planned, there could well be a case where aircraft are waiting for Indians to cross the Ukraine border.
The crew and the operations teams have to be lauded for the efforts but contrary to what social media is making it out to be, these aren’t heroic efforts. The airlines are landing in Bucharest and Budapest, which are at considerable distances from the war zone. Regular air operations continue at these airports and all ground services like check-in, customs and immigration are fully operational.
The next few days are crucial and this mission is a constant reminder to be cautious and evacuate when there is time at hand. Every evacuation mission has its own lessons, for an early evacuation could be commercial while a later one could be at the cost of the taxpayer!