As many as 227 Indian nationals stranded in Finland, Denmark, Estonia and Latvia have been flown back home under the third phase of the mega evacuation exercise Vande Bharat.
National carrier Air India on Friday evening operated its first passenger flight ever from the Finnish capital city Helsinki, bringing back the Indian citizens stranded in the four European countries due to the international travel restrictions following the coronavirus outbreak.
Air India's Country Manager in Israel, Pankaj Tiwari, whose office coordinated the repatriation flight told PTI that the AI 1184 flight landed in New Delhi on Saturday.
"The repatriation provided immense relief to stranded Indians, especially those who had come to Finland as tourists, business travellers, senior citizens who had been visiting their children and students who finished their academic year," India's Ambassador to Finland Vani Rao told PTI.
"Among them were a couple who came to Finland for their honeymoon and got stuck for three months. Several are returning to India for medical attention and family emergencies," Rao added.
While most of the stranded passengers were from Finland, 15 were from Estonia, some from Denmark and one from Latvia.
The Air India flight also brought to Finland 168 people, including 15 infants, who were stranded in India.
The special flight was a massive effort and a challenging one because Air India does not have any operations in Finland and all the logistics and ground support had to be handled by the concerned Finnish operators and was managed remotely by the Air India office in Tel Aviv, Rao said.
"This operation was very special as it was the first ever passenger flight from Finland to India by Air India. Another first was the scale at which thermal screening was carried out at the Helsinki airport -- in the last 15 years a thermal screening operation of so many passengers was not done in Helsinki on a single day," she said.
The Finnish government, especially the foreign ministry, the border police and the airport management company, Finnavia, extended their cooperation and support to the inbound and outbound flights in coordination with the Indian embassy and the Air India office in Tel Aviv.
The Indian community in Finland also came forward to volunteer in the efforts. "While the mission was extremely challenging and needed coordination on several fronts, the happiness of the stranded Indians and their relief at finally heading back home made it completely worthwhile. For the embassy and the Indian community, an Air India flight landing at Helsinki was a moment of pride and a very memorable one," Rao said.
Some Indians in Finland and Estonia who could not be accommodated on the flight, and are keen to go back to India, have been advised to take the Vande Bharat Flights from Frankfurt and Paris through direct booking.
"Handling operations at an offline location is challenging, but with the excellent support from the team of Embassy officials, local authorities in Finland and the Air India Team it was a seamless experience," Tiwari said.
The third phase of the Vande Bharat Mission got underway on Thursday and will continue till July 2. Phase-III will have 432 international flights from 43 countries reaching 17 states and union territories.
A total of 1,65,375 Indians have returned from abroad till Thursday under the evacuation mission, the first phase of which was launched on May 7.