How a revised Air India route helped AI 173 Delhi-San Francisco land on ground in Magadan

Ananya Bhattacharya
Ananya BhattacharyaJun 07, 2023 | 15:50

How a revised Air India route helped AI 173 Delhi-San Francisco land on ground in Magadan

Air India revised its flight AI 173 route in 2019. Image: DailyO

It was sometime in 2019 when Air India announced that it would be flying over the North Pole to get to San Francisco. Air India revised its Delhi-San Francisco route to reduce fuel costs and flight time.

Before August 2019, AI 173 took the route over Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and Japan, before entering the Pacific. This is a route which measured 12,000 km. The current route is an arch above Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, the Arctic Ocean, before entering the US. At 8,000 km, this new route was 2/3rd of the earlier one.


Air India's decision to choose the North Pole over the Pacific was also keeping in mind the myriad reasons why airlines avoid flying over this wild wild ocean. So, for flights originating from Delhi or Mumbai and onward to the US West Coast means flying over Russia for many hours.

The flight path of Air India Flight AI 173. Screengrab: Flightradar24
The flight path of Air India Flight AI 173. Screengrab: Flightradar24

It is precisely this choice that became a saviour for AI 173 on June 6, 2023. Yesterday, the Air India flight took off from Delhi on schedule and developed a snag mid-air, when it was above the Russian Arctic.

The nearest airport that could accommodate a Boeing 777-200LR was Magadan. Magadan is the home of the Magadan/Sokol Flight Information Region (FIR) and Magadan Oceanic FIR. This airport controls the Northeastern part of Russia and its Arctic airspace, which is where the Air India flight developed the snag. 

Magadan is a 295 sq km port town with about 95,000 people. There are hardly any hotels that could accommodate the 200+ passengers onboard AI 173. Some passengers from AI 173 wrote on Twitter how families were accommodated in hotels while most others were taken to a makeshift shelter and provided with blankets, pillows and mattresses. The Russian Far East anyway has very few airports and in remote Russia, things take long to reach.

Airports in Russia. Screengrab: ourairports.com
Airports in Russia. Screengrab: ourairports.com

A ferry flight from India is expected to reach Magadan tomorrow, with food and essentials. It was initially scheduled to take off at 8.30 am IST; and then pushed to 1 pm IST.

At 2 pm IST, Air India tweeted that the ferry flight is AI 195 and will be taking off 'anytime soon'.

At 3.35 pm today, Air India announced that the ferry flight AI 195 was airborne for Sokol Airport in Magadan.

Now, under the earlier route, developing a snag mid-air after 7 hours of flying would mean the Air India flight having to struggle with an airport to land. There's only the Pacific underneath and the airports in Japan and other islands in the ocean, and the fate of the flight is unimaginable at this point.

Magadan, despite all the problems the passengers are dealing with -- and that's quite a list -- is perhaps still a safer alternative than the Pacific Ocean.


Of course, not many airliners have been allowed to use the Russian airspace since February 2022. Air India is one of the very few carriers still allowed to fly over Russia. It operates nine routes over Russia into the US. All of North and South America are barred from using the Russian airspace in a tit-for-tat move by the respective countries, as is most of Europe. Some flights from the developed world choose to not fly over Russia. 

Flights above the Russia are very few. Screengrab: Flightradar24
Flights above Russia are very few. Screengrab: Flightradar24

India, which has been on the receiving end of the ire of the West ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, still has an ally in Russia. New Delhi's reluctance to pick a side in the war has been seen as selfish by some, and obnoxious by others. But it is this very relation between India and Russia that helped Air India Flight AI 173 land safely somewhere in an unknown town in the remote Russian Arctic.

It has been 30 hours since AI 173 made the emergency landing in Magadan. The ferry flight has yet to reach Magadan. As we click on refresh time and again on the Air India Twitter timeline, waiting for an update on AI 173, one can't help but heave a silent sigh of relief: that we are talking inconvenience and not anything worse.

Last updated: June 07, 2023 | 20:22
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