On the evening of March 22, 5-7 seniorexecutives of JetAirways were assembled in the board room of the headquarters at Siroya Centre at Andheri (East) inMumbai.Itwasanoperations reviewmeeting,whichairlinesroutinelyconvene to keep their hundreds of flights running from airports around the world.
The meeting was soon jolted by a call from a Jet pilot at the Brussels airport in Zaventum, Belgium. He had terrible news to share.
Brussels airport, the European hub for Jet Airways and its gateway to the West, was under terrorist attack. Anxious for confirmation, someone switched on the television in the room. News channels for once had not caught up with the calamitous events.
Two more calls followed in rapid succession. One of the callers happened to be a Jet crew member named Amit Motwani who was injured in the attack, confirming their worst fears. Two bombs had exploded at 7:58 am local time in the departure terminal at the Brussels Airport.
The first call had come barely two minutes after the explosions took place. Jet’s officials swung into gear and about 20 of them assembled at the emergency response centre. Little did they know then they would be at the job for the next 62 hours.
Information was critical and as it happens in such circumstances, getting it was proving to be tricky. The Belgian security agencies had cut off phone lines within minutes of the blasts. Jet had 700 passengers stranded at the airport. It also had four Airbus A330 planes parked there.
According to the Brussels schedule, between 7:15 am and 7:45 am local time, four planes land at the airport from Delhi, Mumbai, Newark and Toronto every day. In the next two hours, passengers on those flights deplane and the next set of passengers board the planes for onward flights which go criss-cross. So the planes landing from Delhi and Mumbai fly to Newark and Toronto and those from Newark and Toronto fly to Delhi and Mumbai.
On that day, Jet’s Delhi-Brussels-Toronto flight 9W 230 landed minutes before the explosion. The passengers were deplaned and told to wait on the tarmac. The other three f lights had already landed which meant that two sets of passengers—those who had deplaned from them and the ones who were about to board for onward flights — were scattered all across the airport: at check-in counters, immigration area, security hold, baggage claim area etc.
“Are my passengers, my crew and our as- sets safe? That was the thing in our minds,” Amit Agarwal, the airline’s finance chief and acting CEO, said in an interview to ET on Friday. “We got into emergency mode,” he added.
By then, news channels were flashing news of the explosions, the result of two devastating suicide bombings in the main terminal. (Another explosion would rock a Brussels subway train. The attacks claimed 32 victims and wounded 270.)
Tragedy was about to further hit home. One of the photographs of the victims of the attack that was fast becoming viral was of Jet’s senior cabin manager Nidhi Chaphekar. She was grievously injured. And she was untraceable.
ButsheandMotwaniweretheonlytwopeo- ple connected to Jet who were injured. When ET asked Agarwal about the narrow escape of the rest, he raised his hand skywards.
Jet executives managed to stay in touch with colleag ues at Brussels through WhatsApp. Fingers jabbed quick to send short messages and shuffle between multiple chat groups to get real time updates. Besides Agarwal, Nikhil Ved, senior vice-president flight operations, KM Unni, head of maintenance and engineering, Rahul Taneja, HR head, and the heads of safety and emergency operations, e-commerce, cargo and corporate communications were overseeing Jet’s response to the attack.
Back at Brussels, the word ‘EVACUATE’ was resounding across the airport security systems. The airport was shut down within a few hours. News of the attack at the metro station came in, forcing the authorities to put the city on high alert.
The blasts had upset Jet’s smooth exit from Brussels to Amsterdam, its new hub to the west. That was the least of the worries. The stranded passengers had to be located and shipped off to safety.
According to Ved, the staff who were on the ground formed a local incident control centre. “This is a standard procedure we use. I obviously can’t dispatch somebody overnight. Brussels was shut. Even if we were to activate someone in Europe, he or she would take some time to get in. So they took up a room at Holiday Inn, a hotel close to the airport, and operated from there.”
In two hours, a team of 20 Jet employees located all passengers, contacting them via WhatsApp, alerting them of a helpline number on Twitter and going to each spot where they were grouped. Agarwal said some were even sent to morgues to check for fatalities.
It took another two hours to locate Chaphekar and Motwani, who were in two separate hospitals, both located on the outskirts of Brussels.
“There are so many hospitals they use according to their crisis control programme. So we had carefully assigned our people to go to the right places,” said Ved.
Jet then deployed its own team of doctors and flew them to Brussels to look after the two employees.
Chaphekar is a Jet veteran of two decades and was heading the team of cabin crew that flew to Brussels. Ved said she has received severe burns and regained consciousness only last Thursday. Her husband and sister are with her. Motwani has completely recovered.
In Mumbai, the Jet team faced different challenges. First was communication. There was a deluge of calls from families of passengers. Messages were also pouring in on the social media. Second, the airline had to co-ordinate with authorities in India and
Several teams were put together to do the job. Jet chairman Naresh Goyal tried to push things at the highest levels in the government, getting in touch with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and others to ensure a smooth transfer of passengers to India.
Jet realised the only answer to the relocation problem was to take the passengers to Amsterdam. “We didn’t know when airline operations would be allowed. The Brussels airport authorities kept saying ‘one more day’,” said Ved. The imminent shift to Amsterdam was a blessing in disguise, according to Ved. “We had already some people working there.”
Still, there was plenty to do. For one, there was the matter of arranging a mode of transport to Amsterdam. For another, the accommodation of the passengers in the city had to be organised. The airline also had to liaison with the Dutch for parking slots at the Amsterdam airport and Indian and Newark authorities for landing slots at the destination airports. Some passengers had to be accommodated in flights of other airlines KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Delta Air Lines, with which Jet has codeshare alliances.
On March 23 night, 15 buses carried Jet passengers to Amsterdam. The 253 kilometre ride took two and half hours. They were accommodated in 300 hotel rooms across the city. On Thursday, two Jet planes flew into Amsterdam with only pilots — as ferry f lights. One plane carried 214 passengers back to India and the second flew others to Newark. The rest flew on KLM and Delta.
Later, the other two planes directly f lew from Brussels to India, also as ferry flights.
Some issues are yet to be resolved. Some of the passengers’ luggage are still at the Brussels airport (it partially reopened on Monday).
Ved said lessons and losses are two things that the airline is still collating. “The assessment (of losses) is still going on. There are some processes that are yet to be completed.”
Agarwal said losses are secondary. He said he is happy that all passengers travelling with Jet reached their homes safely.
Goyal and his wife, Anita met both hospitalised crew members at Brussels on March 29.
“I don’t think any other private Indian carrier has faced this. We happened to be at the right place at the wrong time,” said Ved.