How Air India scripted history with its Wuhan evacuation

Ashwini Phadnis New Delhi | Updated on February 14, 2020

A lot of preparation was involved in the flag carrier’s first-ever medical evacuation; 647 Indians were brought back from the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak

Air India flights 1348 and 1349 will go down in history for various reasons. The flights to and from Wuhan in China evacuated Indians stranded there after the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic in the first medical evacuation for Air India in over 70 years of existence. This will probably also be the last evacuation while the Maharaja is still owned by the government.


“Our flights to China were AI 348 leaving from here and AI 349 coming back hence these numbers were given. The additional 1 was put before the flights to denote that these were special flights,” explained Captain Amitabh Singh, Director – Operations, Air India.

In all the two Boeing 747 flights evacuated 647 Indians. Captain Amitabh was on both the flights which were operated on January 31 and February 2 to Wuhan.

There were 15 cabin crew members on each special flight and two sets of pilots. After operating these flights, the crew was checked at the airport and then home-quarantined for seven days after which they were allowed to operate on domestic flights for two weeks. Captain Amitabh was the only one on both special flights.

Meticulous planning

Planning the evacuation was not simple. The Chinese authorities made it clear that Air India flight 1348 could land only after 8 pm (Chinese local time), so the departure from Delhi had to be worked out accordingly.

For the planners, there were a number of things that were critical: identifying the aircraft that could fly to Wuhan and selecting support staff to operate the two flights.

Since this was a restricted flight as Wuhan was in shutdown mode, the planners decided that engineering staff with spares, commercial staff to calculate the load and ground handling staff should be on the aircraft. Fight dispatchers were part of both the Wuhan flights as they had to file the flight plan and coordinate with Air Traffic Control. The Air India flight flew over Bangladesh and Myanmar before reaching Wuhan.

In addition, there were doctors — from the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, Delhi, on the first flight and from Safdurjung Hospital, Delhi, on the second flight.

“Both the flights left Delhi at 12.50 in the afternoon. The first time the aircraft was on the ground for six-and-a-half hours in Wuhan while on the second flight we stayed for eight hours and 15 minutes. Those who were operating the special flights were only allowed to go till the aerobridge,” says Captain Amitabh.



The time on the ground in Wuhan was spent coordinating various things such as refuelling the aircraft for the flight back to Delhi and coordinating with the Indian Consulate to ensure that the evacuees were on their way in batches to the airport.

While there were three layers of checks before the passengers were allowed to board, Air India was taking no chances — the doctors from India checked all those boarding the aerobridge before allowing them to board.

Makeshift clinic

The aerobridge also acted as a makeshift clinic where the doctors explained to those boarding in Wuhan as to how to put on their masks and maintain basic hygiene.

Since the Boeing 747 is a double-deck aircraft, the upper deck was isolated for the cabin crew operating the flight while the first-class section in the front of the aircraft was isolated for doctors and engineers.

For Captain Amitabh, a veteran of various evacuations Air India has carried out, including from Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait, this was a completely different experience. He was on both flights, taking part in a medical emergency evacuation with the possibility that some passengers were infected with the coronavirus. The earlier evacuations he had been involved in were from war and strife-torn areas.

However, what matters in the end is that the Captain and other Air Indians and doctors on the two flights are safe. And they ensured that the Indians stuck in the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in China were evacuated safely.

Published on February 14, 2020

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