Satish John

The Economic Times - - Special Feature -

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.

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