After a harrowing 10 hours aboard a flight from Amsterdam to Delhi, more than 100 Indian passengers, who were not allowed to land in Delhi on Saturday due to worries over the Coronavirus pandemic, are expected to be brought to Delhi on Sunday by a special flight.
The decision to allow the passengers and a plane was taken by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), which had earlier disallowed the KLM flight to land, making it turn around somewhere over Russia and return to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
Among the passengers, who were kept waiting at the Amsterdam airport for a total of 3 days, was a pregnant woman who developed complications as a result of the tense situation on board, and had to be hospitalised on landing in Amsterdam. One passenger, who gave up waiting to return to India, caught a flight to Canada instead, taking the final number of passengers to 102.
“[There were] some gaps in interpreting the advisory, which led to this problem,” a senior Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) official told The Hindu, indicating that the interpretation by the DGCA of an advisory dated March 16 that prohibited “travel of passengers from” Europe was wrong, as these were passengers transiting from North America.
An official of the Ministry of Civil Aviation too explained that the aircraft was forced to return because of “inter-ministry confusion”.
KLM-871 was one hour from landing in Delhi around 1 a.m. on Saturday but was “redirected” to Amsterdam on the instructions of the aviation ministry. It was carrying passengers in transit at the Schiphol Airport who had flown in from the U.S., Canada and Mexico to catch a connecting flight. Also, it was being operated to Delhi in order to evacuate Dutch nationals before a complete ban on commercial flights kicks in on Sunday.
Hours after the flight took off from Amsterdam at 12.40 p.m. local time, officials in the Ministry of Civil Aviation got into a huddle to look at a request from the MEA to allow the flight from Amsterdam to land in India. After a hard look at the March 16 advisory, it was concluded that all passengers from Europe were barred from entering India, regardless of what their port of origin was, said officials in the know.
“The flight was forced to return despite [civil aviation authorities] being told that the flight was bringing transit passengers from North America,” an MEA official said, adding that the DGCA was also informed that elderly people and children were on board.
The husband and sister-in-law of the pregnant woman from Mumbai tweeted a number of appeals to the government as the flight spent more than 15 harrowing hours in the air. “My wife is six months pregnant and requires special assistance,” wrote her husband, Tejas Deepak Vispute. He thanked the Indian Embassy staff who assisted when the long flight led to his wife developing contractions and needing to be hospitalised at Amsterdam’s University Hospital.
Officials said a flight from Amsterdam would be allowed to land on Sunday. Although the government had put into place a ban on commercial planes, KLM would be allowed to fly a special flight, bringing the stranded Indian passengers and taking back Dutch nationals.
India is one of the few countries that has decided not to allow its own citizens to return for fear they will carry the COVID-19 virus.