India’s national carrier Air India has been praised for flying a number of flights to rescue Indians stranded in coronavirus-affected countries. Now, a group of pilots have alleged their safety was compromised – a charge the airline denies.
Air India’s fleet has long been used by the government to help Indians in crisis. This has included everything from delivering relief materials during natural calamities to airlifting citizens from Middle Eastern countries during the 2011 Arab Spring.
But this time, as Covid-19 sweeps across the world, crew members have made several allegations about serious shortcomings with regards to ensuring the safety of crew and passengers on these flights.
In a letter seen by the BBC, the Executive Pilots Association, a body that represents senior long-haul pilots of the airline, says they have been given “flimsy” pieces of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that “tear and disintegrate easily on rescue flights”.
The letter, which has been sent to the airline and the aviation ministry, adds that “disinfection processes [for aircraft] are short of international industry best practices”.
“These inadequacies compound the chances of viral exposure and equipment contamination and may even lead to community transmissions of Covid-19 within crew members, passengers and the public at large,” the letter states.
The Indian Pilots’ Guild, which also represents Air India’s long-haul pilots, has written to the ministry citing similar concerns. The BBC has seen this letter as well.
A senior pilot, who did not wish to be identified, told the BBC it is not that the crew “doesn’t want to work in these testing times for the country”.
“All we are asking is that proper safety procedures should be followed. If we don’t have the right PPE and disinfection processes, we are risking the safety of everybody on the plane, our family, and residents of the buildings where we live,” he said.
“We are being compared to soldiers and that is very humbling. But you have to give the right gear to your soldiers.”
An Air India spokesperson acknowledged the letters and said: “Air India is proud of its crew.”
“Our crew has shown tremendous strength, integrity and dedication. All possible measures have been taken towards their health and safety. Best available PPE are procured for our crew,” he told the BBC.
The pilot also added that in some cases the norm of following 14-day quarantine period for everybody returning from abroad was not applied to crew members.
The BBC is aware of at least one case where a pilot who returned from a Covid-19-affected country was asked to fly again within seven days.
The spokesperson denied these allegations, saying that “all crew having done international flights have been home quarantined”.
“They have been advised to self-isolate should they develop any symptoms and report immediately. We are following all government quarantine guidelines,” he added.
The two letters add that the crew do not have any specific Covid-19-related insurance policies and don’t have medical teams to examine them when they return from international flights.
“Medical teams all over India are now being covered under a government scheme, although surprisingly air crew are not,” the letters say.
“We are not comparing ourselves to medical staff – they really are the frontline soldiers. But we are also risking our lives, and an insurance will just give us some peace of mind.”
The association has also highlighted the issue of unpaid allowances to the crew.
“Our flying-related allowances, comprising 70% of our total emoluments, remain unpaid since January 2020. This is grossly unfair,” the letter says.
The pilot added that this went against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s request to employers not to withhold or cut wages in this time of crisis.
“I will repeat again that we do not mind serving the nation, but we need our pay to be protected. We need to be able to look after our families,” he said.
The airline spokesperson said that “all salaries have been paid and efforts are on to clear some pending dues”, but pilots say the withheld allowances are around 70% of their total earnings.
Air India has been saddled with massive debts and several efforts to sell it have failed.
However despite this, the airline is in the midst of planning a massive operation to evacuate foreigners in India at great cost.
The passengers will be collected from several major Indian cities and flown to Frankfurt, but Air India will not be bringing back any Indian citizens who may still be stuck in Europe.
The pilot said “it’s commendable that Air India is helping those in need” but asked why Indians could not be on the return flights as the planes would be flying home empty.
“I want to stress that we will not stop flying rescue and supply missions at any cost. We just want to be heard,” another pilot told the BBC.
“Otherwise it feels like we are alone in this battle when the need is for all of us to work together and look after each other.”
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