More than three decades ago, thousands of Indians were ferried in buses to Jordan from Kuwait, which was then under attack from Iraq, before they were flown to India, mostly by Air India.
The mass evacuation of Indians in 1990 from Kuwait, which also found a place in the Guinness World Records for the biggest evacuation by a civil airliner, might well provide an impetus for authorities as they explore ways to bring back Indian citizens stranded in Ukraine, which is currently under attack from Russia.
With the Ukrainian airspace being shut for civilian flights amid the Russian attack, India is looking to evacuate its citizens from Ukraine to neighbouring countries through land-border crossings.
Indian ambassadors in countries neighbouring Ukraine such as Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary have been asked to send teams from their missions to border areas with Ukraine to facilitate the exit of Indians.
By road from Kyiv, it will take over 16 hours to reach Hungary’s border and at least more than 7 hours to reach the borders of Poland and Romania. Similarly, it will take over 11 hours to reach the Slovakia border.
There were around 20,000 Indians in Ukraine and out of them, nearly 4,000 have returned to India in the last few days.
An Air India plane enroute Kyiv returned mid-way on Thursday, due to closure of Ukrainian airspace.
On February 22, Air India brought back around 240 Indians from Kyiv. Many people have also come back through flights operated by other carriers, including Ukraine International Airlines.
Apart from Kuwait, Air India has also operated flights to evacuate people from various countries, including Yemen, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia.
Jitender Bhargava, former Executive Director at Air India, told PTI that more than 1.70 lakh people were evacuated from Kuwait in 1990.
“From Kuwait, people were taken in buses to Jordan and Air India operated flights to Jordan (Amman). From Jordan, people were taken to various parts of India…,” he told PTI.
At that time, Air India staff were stationed at a hotel in Jordanian capital Amman to issue tickets to Indians since the airline did not have operations to that city, Bhargava, who was closely involved in the efforts to evacuate Indians from Kuwait, said.
After the evacuation was over, it was Bhargava who checked with Guinness World Records about any existing record regarding evacuation of people.
“I wrote to the Guinness World Records so as to know what was the existing record of evacuation by a civil airliner. That is when they said, we don’t have it and when we completed the thing, we wrote back to them and then, they recognised it as a world record… in terms of being the largest evacuation by a civil airliner… It remains the record,” he said.
In 1990, Air India was a small airline with around 19 aircraft in its fleet and it also had to maintain the normal flight schedule as well as operate flights to Amman, he added.
Spread over nearly 60 days, more than 1,70,000 Indians were evacuated from Kuwait in 1990 through a massive operation involving Air India, Indian Airlines and the Indian Air Force. Around 500 flights were operated to bring back people and most of the services were by Air India.
The evacuation operation, which did not have a code name, commenced around the middle of August 1990 and was completed sometime in October the same year.
Not just Air India, even the now grounded Jet Airways had ferried Indians on road before flying them to India soon after the terror attacks in the Belgian capital Brussels in March 2016.
According to a former Jet Airways official aware about the operations during that time, hundreds of passengers stranded in Brussels following the blast were taken to Amsterdam, mostly in buses, and flown by the airline’s flights to India.
The airline, which suspended operations in April 2019 due to financial woes, had operated multiple flights to Amsterdam to bring back the stranded passengers. In the terror attacks in March 2016 at Brussels, more than 30 people were killed and scores were wounded.
Over the decades, Air India, which saw the merger of Indian Airlines with itself in 2007, has carried out a large number of rescue and evacuation flights to bring back people from overseas during times of conflict and pandemic.
The airline, which was acquired by Tatas in January this year, operated flights to China’s Wuhan, which was the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020.
Currently, many flights are being operated by Air India under the Vande Bharat Mission which has been in place since May 7, 2020. These flights are to bring back Indians stranded overseas amid the coronavirus pandemic-induced restrictions.
A total of 54,748 flights that carried 73,82,038 passengers have been operated till February 24, 2022 under the Vande Bharat Mission, as per data available with the civil aviation ministry.
Scheduled international commercial passenger flights are suspended from March 23, 2020 and overseas flights are currently being operated under bilateral air-bubble arrangements.