As the situation in Afghanistan remains unstable, the airspace over the country was declared military-only on Monday, with commercial flights asked not to overfly. This meant two Air India flights from the US had to divert to the UAE on short notice, pushing the pilots over their flight duty time limit (FDTL). Both aircraft landed safely in Delhi a few hours late.
As the situation in Afghanistan unfolded this week, several aircraft flying overhead had to change flight paths to avoid the country. Two of these were Air India 777s, with AI126 flying from Chicago to New Delhi and AI174 flying from San Francisco to New Delhi. Both planes were approaching Afghanistan airspace on Monday, 16th August, when the NOTAM was issued to avoid airspace.
While airlines can usually account for blocked airspace, the sudden nature meant Air India pilots had to divert for fuel reasons. AI126 departed Chicago at 12:00 PM local time on 15th August and was informed about the closure of Afghan airspace only minutes after entering the area. This meant the 777-300ER made a sharp right turn to enter Turkmenistan and then divert to Sharjah, UAE, for fuel.
The aircraft entered Afghan airspace at 10:05 AM local time and seems to have been informed only moments later. The plane took a sharp left into Turkmenistan and was out of the airspace in seven minutes. However, the plane then did not have enough fuel for the journey back to New Delhi. This meant a diversion to Sharjah was chosen for refueling.
AI174 departed SFO at 10:30 AM local time and began the long 15 hours back to New Delhi. According to the Hindustan Times, the 777-200LR was informed of the airspace closure before AI126 and was able to divert over Russia to Sharjah, avoiding Afghanistan altogether.
AI126 spent around 90 minutes in Sharjah refueling and preparing for the three-hour flight back to Delhi, reaching with a five-hour delay. AI174 spend nearly two hours before making its way to the capital and reached 4.5 hours behind schedule. Both planes landed safely.
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Over the limit
All pilots are assigned a flight duty time limit (FDTL) by the DGCA, depending on the route being flown. For long-haul flights, there is an hour cap and the number of landings a pilot can make, which is one. However, the sudden diversion of AI126 and AI174 meant the pilots on both planes had to land in the UAE first.
Instead of flying in a fresh crew from India and having passengers spend the night in the UAE, the pilots opted to fly the Sharjah-Delhi leg as well. While this is technically not in line with the rules, pilots can voluntarily exceed the FDTL in such situations. This meant passengers were home only a few hours behind schedule.
Separately also flew out of Kabul to Delhi on August 15th, the last of the airline’s commercial services this week. As the military flight and evacuations operate out of Kabul Airport, expect to see longer flights on many routes and commercial flights remain suspended.