Fortune India|May 2020

Taking on evacuation flights to high-risk countries, including China, has proven Air India’s value in a crisis. But the boost in reputation has done nothing for its commercial viability, which still hangs by a thread.

AIR INDIA (AI) ISN’T a five-star rated airline. Skytrax, the London-based research and quality advisors to the global airport transport industry, gives it just three stars. Those who have flown AI aren’t likely to argue with the evaluation either. However, its service during the Covid-19 pandemic has ensured that India’s flag carrier’s worth can be measured beyond ratings.

Consider how, over the last 90 days, AI has operated flights to evacuate Indians stranded in Japan, Milan, Rome, and China—it made two flights to Wuhan, the global epicentre of the pandemic. Also, March 31 onwards, it mobilised its resources and scheduled 18 charter flights to fly back German, French, Irish, and Canadian nationals stranded in India. Besides, a charter cargo flight was operated from Delhi to Shanghai on April 4 to fly in vital medical cargo from China to India. AI continued to operate more such flights to Shanghai till April 9, ferrying in critical medical equipment into the country. Within India, from March 26 to April 4, AI and its regional subsidiary Alliance Air operated 86 charter flights to transport medical equipment and other essential items to areas in the Northeast and other far-flung places.

This is not a first, however. In times of crisis, AI has always risen to the occasion, says Jitender Bhargava, former executive director of Air India.“The airline has done it on a number of occasions for the last 30-odd years and it has always earned rich accolades from everyone,” he points out. This time around, though, the personal risks for the crew members were significantly higher. “Carrying every passenger was a risk, travelling was a high risk,” says Kapil Kaul, CEO and director of CAPA South Asia, an aviation consultancy firm, given the highly communicable nature of the Covid-19 virus.


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May 2020