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Air India starts evacuation flights to countries bordering Ukraine

Government asks all airlines to participate in the operation to bring back Indians

February 26, 2022 12:48 am | Updated 09:20 am IST - NEW DELHI

Refugees from Ukraine sleep in a tent part of a humanitarian center at the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, in Palalanca, Moldova, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing from war by crossing their borders to the west in search of safety.

Refugees from Ukraine sleep in a tent part of a humanitarian center at the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, in Palalanca, Moldova, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing from war by crossing their borders to the west in search of safety. | Photo Credit: AP

Air India will start evacuation flights to countries bordering Ukraine from Saturday even as the government has requested other airlines to join the "operation" to bring back Indians trying to flee the war-torn country.

Air India will operate a flight each to Bucharest and Budapest as special government charter flights, the airline tweeted late on Friday evening.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation has also written to all airlines requesting them to consider starting flights to countries with a land border with Ukraine, an official said.

Embassy’s advisory

The Indian Embassy in Ukraine issued an advisory informing Indian nationals that it was working to establish evacuation routes from Romania and Hungary. Later, in an update through its Twitter handle, the embassy said more than 470 students were ready to exit Ukraine and enter Romania.

Air India had earlier this week operated a flight to Ukraine and brought back 242 Indians. On Thursday, its second repatriation flight to Kyiv was forced to turn back mid-way after Ukraine closed its airspace for civilian flights following Russia's "military operation".

Officials of the Ministry of Civil Aviation said Air India's flights were based on a "request, and not a directive" since it was now a private carrier owned by Tata Sons. Last week, the Ministry wrote to all airlines asking them to start flights to Ukraine, and "only Air India and SpiceJet gave a commitment," a Ministry official said. Though Air India had already announced its plan to operate three flights to Kyiv, and SpiceJet was also ready to start flights in the days to come, the shutting down of Ukrainian airspace put paid to those plans.

Key considerations

Officials said Air India's wide-body planes such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner that flew to Kyiv on Tuesday as well as pilots experienced in flying to conflict zones were also important considerations. The airline most recently evacuated Indians from Wuhan in March 2020 due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and has also rescued Indians during the conflict in Libya in 2014, and from Egypt in 2011. Its biggest evacuation was from Kuwait, which was attacked by Iraq in 1990, when nearly 488 flights were operated to rescue 1,70,00 Indians over a period of two months. This is also known as the world's largest air evacuation.

Asked whether Air India would be paid for the evacuation flights, an official said there was “no clarity” on the issue. The Ministry of External Affairs has said the cost of such flights will be completely borne by the Government of India. A senior official of the Ministry of Civil Aviation also contended that airfares for flights from Kyiv were exorbitant and said, “Business class fare was ₹1.1 lakh and economy class fare was at ₹56,000”. Air India’s Kyiv flight was a commercial flight.

A Ministry of Civil Aviation official said that while the Aircraft Act, 1934 empowers the government to order airlines to start flights in an emergency situation, it was meant for use within a "domestic framework", i.e. for domestic flights. However, this provision "has never been invoked".

To a question whether there should be bidding among different airlines for such evacuation flights since Air India is now a private carrier, an official said this was not a situation where different airlines were vying to fly but one where the government was making a request.

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