Wednesday, March 02, 2022

End of runway for Maharaja’s Queen of Skies jumbo that fit 400+ evacuees

Mumbai: Air India has been India’s “knight in shining armour” for emergency evacuation of her citizens from conflict zones. Within the Maharaja’s fleet, it was the ‘Queen of the Skies’, the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, who carried the heaviest volume of evacuees per flight; what with a cavernous cabin that can seat 423 passengers. The double-decker plane is the largest civilian aircraft that India—the country with the largest diaspora population in the world—ever had. She played a key role in evacuations right from Operation Desert Storm in 1990 to Wuhan evacuation of students in January 2020. The Ukraine evacuation then has signalled the end of an era.

Currently, the Boeing 787 and narrow-body aircraft such as Boeing 737s, the A321s that seat around 200 passengers and can’t fly non-stop from India to these European countries without making a fuel break are carrying out evacuations into airports such as Bucharest in Romania where at least 2,000 Indian students are waiting. The Air India Boeing 787 Dreamliner has the range, but with a capacity of 256 seats, she doesn’t come close to the jumbo jet.

On Tuesday, when Air India Express Boeing 737 with 182 Indian students aboard landed at Mumbai airport, parked several metres away were the Maharaja’s last four jumbo jets. Now in their mid-twenties, Agra, Ajanta, Khajuraho and Velha Goa—the names Air India gave to these four Boeing 747s, that is—await their scrappy end, their lives spent.

“Out of the four B747s (now with Alliance Air), two could have been used for Ukraine evacuations with an aircraft ‘Certificate of Registration’,” said an Air India source. There are other problems though. The last lot of Air India pilots who flew these jumbo jets have moved on to the Boeing 777s and 787s. The final evacuation an Air India jumbo jet did then was in 2020.

Two Boeing 747 flights flew from Delhi to Wuhan on January 31 and the next day, evacuating 647 Indians and 7 Maldivians.

Former Air India director (operations) and B747 veteran Capt Manoj Hathi, who was part of Operation Desert Storm, said: “Hundreds of Indians came walking from Kuwait and even Iraq to Amman in Jordan where the Air India jumbo jet with its magnanimously spaced cabin had landed, ready to fly back over 400 Indians in one go.” Air India engineers were onboard too, which was the norm when flying the jumbo jet into smaller airports that could not offer engineering services to the B747. “British Airways had a farewell for its B747 and the Concorde. Our jumbos too deserved a farewell,” Capt Hathi added. Capt Dilip Kharkar, also a B747 veteran, said: “The A380 might be a double-decker, but it’s no match for the aura that a B747 exudes.”

02/03/22 Times of India

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