Ground Staff Realises Pilot COVID-19 Positive Mid-Flight, Delhi-Moscow Aircraft Returns

The plane, flying as part of the Vande Bharat Mission, had been empty except for crew.

New Delhi: An Air India flight from Delhi to Moscow was asked to return midway on Saturday after its ground team realised that one of the pilots onboard the plane tested positive for coronavirus, officials in the airline and aviation regulator DGCA told PTI.

The Airbus A320 plane departed around 7.15 am for Moscow to bring back a group of stranded Indians under the Vande Bharat evacuation mission and it was back in Delhi by 12.30 pm following orders from the authorities, they said.

Two senior bureaucrats confirmed that there was a “lapse” on the part of officials responsible to scrutinise the coronavirus test reports of the crew members and that they did not look at the pilot’s test results properly.

According to standard operating procedure, pilots and other crew members of any flight are required to undergo mandatory testing for coronavirus and are assigned duties if the laboratory results are negative.

The Director General of Civil Aviation has already begun an investigation into the case based on a preliminary report by Air India, the officials said.

Also read: Steep Prices, Confusion and Solidarity on a Vande Bharat Flight Back Home

The plane with registration number VT-EXR and having only the crew members was in the airspace of Uzbekistan when it was told to return.

“In this case, the airline officials did not look at the pilot’s test results properly and deemed him fit to fly, assuming that he is COVID-19 negative, even when the test results stated otherwise,” said an official in the DGCA.

An Air India official said the plane was asked to return after the airline’s team on the ground realised that one of the pilots tested positive for the infection.

“The A320 plane did not have any passengers as it was heading to Moscow to bring back stranded Indians under Vande Bharat Mission. It had reached Uzbekistan’s airspace when it was told to return,” he said.

All crew members including the Delhi-based pilot with coronavirus infection have been quarantined, the officials said, adding the plane has already been sanitised.

Another plane is being sent to Moscow to bring back the stranded Indians, they said.

Later in the day, the national carrier issued an official statement, saying: “Air India this morning recalled its aircraft operating Delhi-Moscow (flight) without passengers immediately when it was noticed that one of the cockpit crew had tested positive in the pre-flight COVID test.”

“On return, immediately after landing all cockpit and cabin crew have been tested and all laid down medical precautions are being taken to ensure their health and safety. Another aircraft has taken off today to operate the Vande Bharat flight from Moscow to Delhi,” it said.

The government launched the Vande Bharat Mission on May 7 to bring back stranded Indians from abroad.

Over 45,000 Indians have been brought back home so far. The government plans to evacuate another 100,000 stranded Indians by June 13.

Air India and its subsidiary Air India Express operated 64 flights bringing back Indians from 12 countries in the first phase of the mission from May 7 to May 16.

The second phase of the mission began on May 16 itself. Between May 16 and May 29, Air India group has operated a total 168 international flights.

Note: The story has been updated with Air India’s response.