For eight extremely tense days this month, air traffic controllers in Kolkata guided over 1,000 flights ferrying more than 2.5 lakh passengers headed to China, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and beyond through the skies of Myanmar that had fallen eerily silent following a military coup there.
“From the evening of February 8, there was not a soul at Yangon ATC due to the internal disturbance in the city. Two controllers had tried to keep the ATC operational but had to ultimately switch off after issuing a Notice To Airmen warning pilots that air traffic services would not be available after 7.20pm that evening,” recounted a controller.
With around 140 aircraft entering Myanmar airspace after flying through Kolkata flight information region daily at different heights from 29,000 feet to 41,000 feet, some in close proximity, there was palpable tension over the fate of flights with hundreds of passengers navigating a vast airspace in the dark without guidance from the Yangon ATC. That very evening, ATC officers in Kolkata decided to put in place a Yangon contingency plan that had been charted out barely two years ago. This involved opening only a few routes with just one or two altitudes for all flights. Many busy routes were shut down and flights diverted to other routes, sometimes avoiding Myanmar airspace altogether.