Hundreds of passengers and crew on an Air India flight from New Delhi to San Francisco face a tense wait to complete their flight after an engine problem forced them to land in Russia’s far east.
The emergency landing in Magadan, on the Sea of Okhotsk, raises questions about how Russian authorities will handle the Boeing 777 plane and its GE Aerospace engines, as well as any people among the 216 passengers and 16 crew members who carry passports from countries considered hostile to Russia.
The US State Department said it could not confirm whether any US citizens were on board the service, adding that it was “closely monitoring the situation”. However, given the destination of the flight, there are almost certainly many.
Air India said it would send an alternative aircraft to allow passengers to complete the journey from Magadan to San Francisco on Wednesday.
“The authorities are expanding all cooperation to ensure that passengers reach their destination as quickly as possible,” the airline said.
The airline had previously said the flight, number AI173, had developed a “technical problem” with one of its engines.
“The flight with 216 passengers and 16 crew members was diverted and landed safely at Magadan Airport in Russia,” Air India said.
It is unclear whether engineers from Boeing or GE – both US companies – will be allowed to travel to Russia to service the plane, given the US sanctions against the country following the large-scale invasion of Ukraine. After imposing sanctions, Russia seized dozens of chartered Western-owned aircraft that were under the control of Russian operators.
There have also been incidents of Western citizens being detained in Russia for apparently minor or non-existent violations of Russian law. Among them is Brittney Griner, an American basketball player who was detained last February and sentenced to nine years in prison for holding cannabis-infused oil. She was eventually released in a prisoner exchange.
Evan Gershkovich, a US citizen who works in Russia for The Wall Street Journal, was arrested in March on espionage charges, which he, US authorities and his employer vehemently deny. He remains in custody awaiting trial.
The diversion comes the day after United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby warned at the annual IATA meeting in Istanbul on the risks of flying aircraft carrying US citizens over Russia.
“When you fly over Russia, you use a Russian airport as a place to divert planes,” Kirby said at a briefing. “If there are mechanical or medical problems, you land in Russia. What will happen if an airline lands in Russia with some prominent US citizens on board? That is a potential crisis in the making.”
Andrew Charlton, a Geneva-based aerospace analyst, pointed out that airlines from several countries that were “unaligned” in the war in Ukraine – including China and Turkey -, like Air India, continued to fly over Russia.
“I hope that the American citizens are largely ignored, instead of causing a diplomatic incident that will irritate both Indians and Americans,” he said.
He added that all necessary parts for the plane would have to be flown in from outside Russia. Due to sanctions, aircraft parts in Russia are now largely cannibalized from old aircraft, raising questions about their provenance that would invalidate most international insurance contracts.
GE Aerospace said it was “aware” of the Air India flight’s diversion.
“We are working to support our customer to resolve the issue,” the company said.