August 14th marked the 100th day of Vande Bharat Mission – the much touted repatriation effort undertaken by the Government of India. While the scheme has been much criticized from some quarters for the way the booking process was handled and lack of tickets, there is no denying the fact that over 10 lakh people have been repatriated over the last 100 days.
When Air India operated back to back evacuation flights to Wuhan – the epicentre of COVID19, everybody wondered about the number of Indians who were in Wuhan! Indians have always been adventurous to settle at new places across the world and over the last few years, Air India has been expanding its services with focus on Origin – Destination traffic along with trade ties. This led to expansion of services to Birmingham, Rome, Milan, Stockholm and latching on the opportunity when Austrian vacated the Delhi – Vienna market by quickly launching a flight on the route!
But if one wondered about the two full flights from Wuhan to India, there was more in store going forward! The last 100 days have seen Air India and its subsidiary Air India Express operate to 29 such points where the airline does not have scheduled service! In some cases, there is no airline which has a service to India from these points!
Central Asia & Caucuses
The “stans” have been mystic and Indian airlines have shied away from operations to these all along. While India has direct connectivity to all five “stans” – it is the carriers from the Central Asian Republics which are operating flights and not the Indian carriers.
As Vande Bharat Mission started, Air India saw operations to Almaty, Nur Sultan and Karaganda in Kazakhstan – which most know only as the land of Borat, to Bishkek – the capital of Kyrgyzstan and Dushanbe the capital of Tajikistan.
The sheer numbers of Indians in Central Asia meant that there were charter operations form both local carriers as well as Indian carriers with IndiGo and Spicejet joining in, the later being in partnership with Sonu Sood!
The months of May, June and July saw the Air India group operate 46 flights to Bishkek. In regular times there isn’t even a daily flight between India and Kyrgyzstan! Likewise Karaganda has a population of around 500,000 which is roughly the same as Ulhasnagar – largely considered a suburb of Mumbai!
While Tbilisi has been in the news as IndiGo’s likely stopover point to London, Air India operated to the region to both Tbilisi – the capital of Georgia and Yerevan – the capital of Armenia. Both Georgia and Armenia have populations which are equivalent to that of Jaipur!
Asia Pacific & Africa
Air India also operated to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Jakarta – the capital of Indonesia, Cebu and Manila in Philippines, Guangzhou in China, Kuala Lumpur – which has a large Indian community and Seychelles and Mauritius – the Indian ocean islands.
Far and wide
Long haul operations saw the group reach Vancouver and Auckland! While Air India operates scheduled flights to Australia, New Zealand was a new route! The airline also operates to Johannesburg in South Africa, apart from Cairo and Amman in the Northern Africa and Middle East region.
While a lot of flights in Europe were planned from existing destinations on the Air India route map, the repatriation efforts saw Air India land at Moscow – where it operated scheduled services in the past and also at Kiev in Ukraine and Istanbul in Turkey. The smaller cities like Minsk also saw a repatriation flight!
Dublin and Helsinki completed the European efforts for the airline before the Air bubble arrangement with some countries has meant that there are more avenues and options now open for passengers to travel to India or out of India!
All the operations have been challenging for both Air India and the private players. Without their own staff, the dependency is completely on the local partner which could lead to turnaround delays and putting pressure on flight duty time limitations. While airlines do operate charters to destinations which are not part of their scheduled service, typically a team is sent out in advance to handle the flight and this team is responsible for tie up and seamless ground handling and last minute glitches. With no such option available due to the pandemic, the challenges increase manifold.
These operations also involved the support of local Indian missions but the diplomatic community has been equally affected due to travel ban and lockdowns which puts restrictions on movements in the country where the repatriation flight is being planned! All in all, criticism apart, the effort has been monumental.
India has had long standing relations with the Soviet Union and as it turns out the former republics of the Soviet Union are favorite haunts for students! No surprise then that the passengers on these flights to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Ukraine and Armenia were mostly students!
With India growing its trade, could these countries see direct links in the future? Definitely they could and by the time things normalize and traffic is back or pre-COVID levels, IndiGo would have the A321XLR in its fleet which will allow operations on such long but thin routes!