More than three decades ago, thousands of Indians were bussed to Jordan from Kuwait, then under attack by Iraq, before being flown to India, mostly by Air India .
The 1990 mass evacuation of Indians from Kuwait, which also found a place in the Guinness World Records for the largest evacuation by a civilian airliner, may well provide momentum for authorities as they explore ways to bring stranded Indian citizens back to Ukraine, which is currently being attacked by Russia.
With Ukrainian airspace closed to civilian flights amid the Russian attack, India is seeking to evacuate its citizens from Ukraine to neighboring countries through land border crossings.
Indian ambassadors in neighboring countries of 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 Kiev, it will take more than 16 hours to reach the Hungarian border and at least more than seven hours to reach the borders of Poland and Romania. Likewise, it will take more than 11 hours to reach the Slovak border.
There were about 20,000 Indians in Ukraine and among them, nearly 4,000 have returned to India in recent days.
An Air India plane en route to Kiev returned midway on Thursday, due to the closure of Ukrainian airspace.
On February 22, Air India brought back about 240 Indians from Kiev. Many people also returned on 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 chief executive of Air India, told the PTI news agency that more than 1.70 lakh people were evacuated from Kuwait in 1990.
“From Kuwait, people were taken on buses to Jordan and Air India operated flights to Jordan (Amman). From Jordan, people were taken to various parts of India…”, he told the PTI news agency.
At that time, Air India staff were stationed at a hotel in the Jordanian capital, Amman, to issue tickets to Indians as the airline had no operations in that city, said Bhargava, who was closely involved in efforts to evacuate Indians from Kuwait.
After the evacuation was completed, it was Bhargava who checked with Guinness World Records to verify any existing records regarding the evacuation of people.
“I wrote to Guinness World Records to find out what the existing record was for evacuation by a civilian airliner. That’s when they said, we don’t have it and when we finished the thing, we responded to them and then they recognized it as a world record… for the largest evacuation by a civilian airliner… It remains the record,” he said.
In 1990, Air India was a small airline with around 19 planes in its fleet and it also had to maintain the normal flight schedule as well as 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. About 500 flights were operated to bring people back and most services were provided by Air India.
The evacuation operation, which had no code name, began around mid-August 1990 and was completed around October of the same year.
Not just Air India, even the now-grounded Jet Airways flew Indians on the road before taking them to India shortly after the terrorist attacks in the Belgian capital Brussels in March 2016.
According to a former Jet Airways official familiar with operations during this period, hundreds of passengers stranded in Brussels following the explosion were taken to Amsterdam, mostly on buses, and transported by the airline’s flights to India.
The airline, which suspended operations in April 2019 due to financial problems, had operated several flights to Amsterdam to bring back stranded passengers. In the March 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels, more than 30 people were killed and dozens were injured.
Over the decades Air India, which saw the merger of Indian Airlines into itself in 2007, has carried out a large number of rescue and evacuation flights to bring people back from overseas in times of conflict and pandemic.
The airline, which was acquired by Tatas in January this year, operated flights to Wuhan in China, which was the epicenter 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 coronavirus pandemic induced restrictions.
A total of 54,748 flights carrying 73,82,038 passengers have been operated till February 24, 2022 under the Vande Bharat mission, according to data available from the Ministry of Civil Aviation.
Scheduled international commercial passenger flights are suspended from March 23, 2020 and overseas flights are currently operated under bilateral air bubble agreements.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)