Air India sends plane for stranded US-bound passengers in Russia

An Air India plane flying from New Delhi to San Francisco was diverted to Russia’s Magadan after it developed an engine problem.

Air India
Air India passenger aircraft are seen on the tarmac at Chhatrapati Shivaji International airport in Mumbai [File: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters]

Air India has sent an aircraft to pick up passengers whose New Delhi to San Francisco flight was diverted to Russia’s Far East after their plane developed engine trouble, India’s aviation minister said.

The Boeing 777 plane with 216 passengers and 16 crew on board Tuesday’s flight had been moved to makeshift accommodation, given infrastructure limitations at the remote Magadan airport, the airline said in a statement on Wednesday.

The diversion raised questions over how quickly the $200m United States-built plane, whose engines are made by General Electric, could be repaired amid US and European Union sanctions on exports of aviation items to Russia.

“That plane needs to be repaired, mechanics are going on board,” India’s civil aviation minister, Jyotiraditya Scindia, told reporters, referring to the flight going out to pick up the stranded passengers.

“I don’t know how long it will take to repair that aircraft but passengers will be taken to their ultimate destination.”

A source at the Magadan airport told Reuters news agency that Air India engineers would arrive on the reserve plane with spare parts.

‘A lot of nervous people’

A stranded passenger named Gagan told Indian broadcaster NDTV there were many US citizens on the flight who were worried, given the tension between Russia and the US.

“There are a lot of nervous people here,” the passenger said.

Some angry passengers took to Twitter to complain about inadequate supply of food at their accommodation, which they said looked like a school.

One user said his mother had been given tea, bread and some rice on Tuesday but there was later no contact as she wanted to save her phone battery as there was only one power outlet.

Air India said as it did not have any staff in Russia and the support being provided to the passengers was “the best possible in this unusual circumstance”. “The ferry flight would be carrying food and other essentials for our passengers,” the airline said.

“All of us at Air India are … making every effort possible to operate the ferry flight as soon as possible, and to ensure the health, safety, and security of all while they wait.”

Girvaan Kaahma, 16, was travelling on the flight with his uncle and brother. He said they were barred from leaving the hostel where they are staying in Magadan and cannot use their credit cards to buy items from the vending machine because of sanctions over Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Kaahma said the airline told the passengers they would likely leave Russia for the US on Thursday.

US monitoring situation

Vedant Patel, a US State Department spokesman, on Tuesday said American citizens were likely on the flight but could not immediately confirm how many. “We are continuing to monitor the situation,” Patel said.

The diversion of the Boeing 777 wide-body aircraft came a day after the chief of the world’s largest carrier raised safety concerns about airlines flying through Russian airspace with American citizens on board.

“What’s going to happen if an airline lands in Russia with some prominent US citizens on board? That is a potential crisis in the making,” Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines said on Monday.

“I think we should solve it before the crisis happens.”

On Monday, Air India CEO Campbell Wilson defended the airline’s use of Russian airspace, noting the critical role the industry plays in connecting economies, people and cultures.

“Air India, we operate according to the ambit of what is provided to us by the nation of India and not all nations agree,” he said on a panel at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) annual meeting.

Russia has barred US airlines and other foreign carriers from using its airspace in retaliation for Washington banning Russian flights over the US in March 2022 after Moscow sent troops into Ukraine.

However, Air India and some Gulf-based, Chinese and African carriers continue to fly over Russia, making flying times shorter and US rivals uncompetitive.

Source: News Agencies