The pilots and cabin crew of a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight have been hailed as heroes after they completed a gruelling 42-hour mission to rescue around 180 Saudi citizens who had been left stranded in Los Angeles, California. Although this wasn’t some extraordinarily long non-stop flight but rather a turnaround flight between the Saudi capital Riyadh and Los Angeles that the crew completed in one go.
A total of 43 pilots and 35 flight attendants were required to make these rescue flights work, taking shifts to operate or rest as they flew between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. west coast to get the stranded tourists and students home. After boarding the first flight, the crew weren’t allowed off the plane until after they had returned to King Khalid International Airport.
Perhaps a coincidence, the flight number for this one-off rescue flight was SV42. The amount of time the pilots and cabin crew spent on the plane in one go. Each leg of the journey was approximately 13,400 km, taking around 17-hours at a time.
On approach to Riyadh on its final leg, an air traffic controller told the pilots: “The Saudi Civil Aviation Authority and Saudi Arabian Airlines welcome you to the skies of the dearest nation, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The whole country has followed your trip step by step. You have achieved an unprecedented accomplishment and brought our dear citizens back with you.”
Saudi Arabia suspended all international flights with little notice in mid-March because of the novel Coronavirus pandemic. The initial two-week grounding was extended indefinitely on March 29. The decision left many of its citizens stranded around the world and since then Saudia has operated a few special rescue flights to get some of these people home.
In the last few days, the state-owned airline said it didn’t expect flight operations to return to normal until December 2020. Until then, a number of pilots and flight attendants have been asked to “suspend” their contracts – many of Saudia’s flight crew are expat workers. It’s not known how many crew have been affected by Saudia’s request.
Saudia Arabia has also taken the unprecedented step of banning all foreign pilgrims for the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Last year, around 2.5 million pilgrims travelled to Mecca for the annual religious event. Having only started to issue foreign tourist visas late last year, the country has now suspended tourism until further notice.
Pilots and cabin crew around the world are having to get used to long-haul turnaround flights as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than putting up crew in foreign hotels, a combination of entry restrictions and safety concerns mean crew are now having to fly straight back from where they came from. Saudia’s 42-hour repatriation flight, though, may well be a record.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.