Air India pilots face neglect, yet fly beyond duty hours to bring Indians home

The pilots of Flights A126 and AI174 coming from the US had to be diverted to the UAE after the closure of the Afghan airspace

Air India pilots face neglect, yet fly beyond duty hours to bring Indians home
The Air India B777-300ER coming from Chicago. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/airliners.net/Chris Lofting

Pilots of national carrier Air India covered themselves in glory again, going beyond the call of duty to serve the passengers and indeed the company, as the closure of the Afghan airspace following the Taliban resurgence resulted in an extraordinary situation. 

The pilots of two Air India flights from the US chose to work beyond their Flight Duty Time Limit (FDTL) when they had to reroute to avoid flying over conflict-ridden Afghanistan and make a fuel stop in the UAE, The Hindustan Times reported. By working past their duty time, the pilots ensured that the inconvenience caused to the passengers on the two long-haul flights could be cut to the minimum and also some money could be saved for the airline. 

Such service-mindedness despite being at the receiving end of debilitating hardship, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, from exposure to the deadly coronavirus and its deadlier variants in different parts of the world, steep Covid-induced pay cuts, lack of priority Covid vaccination, infection and even death due to Covid, to meagre compensation for death in the line of duty and even ostracisation in housing societies. 

"The closure of Kabul airport and Afghanistan airspace caused major disruption. Kudos to our member pilots and the crew of AI126. With limited time to react and with inadequate fuel for Delhi they managed a diversion to Sharjah. To avoid major inconvenience to the passengers and cost to the company they opted to extend their FDTL and safely operated another sector. Over 24 hours in uniform, they landed safely in Delhi. All in a day's work for Air India pilots," Indian Pilots’ Guild (IPG), an Air India union of pilots flying widebody planes on long-haul routes tweeted on August 16.

 

The crew of flight AI126 from Chicago to Delhi was informed late about the closure of the Afghan airspace and had to be diverted to Sharjah in the UAE for refuelling just before entering the Afghan airspace. It took off for Delhi after three hours. Flight AI174 from San Francisco to Delhi also had to be diverted to Sharjah for refuelling. It was informed well in advance about the Afghan airspace turning into a virtual no-fly zone. The flight landed in Sharjah at around 3 pm and was at the UAE city for over an hour, a Hindustan Times source said. While Flight AI126, which was supposed to land in Delhi at around 1.45 pm, finally landed at around 6 pm, Flight AI174 landed at around 7.40 pm, instead of around 3 pm. The two Boeing 777 aircraft were carrying a total of around 600 passengers. 

Also read: How Taliban victory in Afghanistan severely hits India's aviation sector

According to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the FDTL allows a pilot only one landing in a long haul flight. However, in practice, it is left to the discretion of the operating pilots to take a call on extending the duty time. No one can force pilots to operate beyond their time limit. If the pilots of the two US-India flights had refused to work beyond their normal duty hours even in the face of an emergency, the flights would have taken even longer to reach Delhi. Also, since the passengers would have had to be accommodated in the UAE, it would have cost the airline a fair bit more too. 

As a result of the situation developing in Afghanistan, long haul air traffic to and from India has taken a hit. Covid-related repatriation efforts were also expected to be severely hit. 

The route followed by Air India between India and the US with the Afghan airspace being closed. Image courtesy: Flightradar24/Twitter/@Vinamralongani

India operated the last flight between Kabul and New Delhi on August 15, carrying 40 Afghans out of India and returning with 129 passengers. The 160-seater Airbus A320 piloted by Captain Aditya Chopra was asked to hold in the air by the air traffic controllers as it prepared to land in Kabul. After circling over Kabul for the next 90 minutes or so, the plane was finally allowed to land. The Delhi-Kabul flight, which usually takes 105-120 minutes, ended up taking a total of three-and-a-half hours. Most of the passengers on the return flight were Afghans fleeing their country. There were also several Indian workers and some Afghan officials too eager to fly out and escape the Taliban. Air India had to cancel its Delhi-Kabul-Delhi flight on August 16.

The route followed by United Airlines between India and the US with the Afghan airspace being closed. Image courtesy: Flightradar24/Twitter/@Vinamralongani

The Afghanistan Civil Aviation Authority (ACAA) issued two notices to airmen (NOTAMs) on August 16, declaring the Kabul airspace as "uncontrolled" and directed transiting (overflying) commercial aircraft to reroute. It announced that the civilian side of the Kabul airport had closed until further notice.   

Also read -- Covid horror: Air India loses 5th pilot in May, but aviation staff still taken for granted

"It means that flights to and from Delhi will have to fly towards the tip of Pakistan and go via Iran in order to avoid Afghanistan's airspace. That's an easy 40 minutes to an hour of extra flying. This is going to increase the cost of flying which would, in turn, have a direct impact on the airfares," said aviation expert Vinamra Longani, according to a Business Today report.    

Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) makes up 30-40% of the costs of airlines, and more fuel burn would result in markedly greater costs. 

Longani pointed towards another consequence of the Afghan situation: "As aircraft take detours to avoid the Afghan airspace, the airspace over Pakistan is busier than ever. Small windfall in overflight charges for the Pakistanis." 

However, with the situation constantly evolving, senior pilots have pointed out that non-stop flights between India and the US would not need fuel stops on the way, a Times of India report said. The difference in flying time would be 20 minutes to one and a half hours, depending upon other factors like wind. Flights from Delhi to London/New York, for instance, can take the Pakistan-Iran-Turkey route instead of the earlier Pakistan-Afghanistan-Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan route. 

"Interestingly, while United Airlines uses a northerly route to enter and exit India, Air India takes a southerly detour," Longani pointed out.     

Going beyond the call of duty for the national cause has been what the pilots of Air India have been known for. Air India helped to evacuate 1.7 lakh stranded Indians from Kuwait in 1990 before the start of the Gulf War, making it a part of the Guinness Book of World Records. The national carrier played a pivotal role in many successful evacuation exercises thereafter, bringing home people from conflict zones and areas hit by natural calamities: in 1994 (Yemen), 1996 (UAE), 1997 (Saudi Arabia), 2003 (Kuwait and South East Asia), 2004 (tsunami-hit states in India), 2006 (Lebanon, via Cyprus), 2011 (Libya), 2013 (Dehradun), 2014 (Tunisia, Iraq and Jammu and Kashmir), 2015 (Yemen, Nepal and Chennai), 2016 (Andaman) and 2018 (Kerala). 

Operation Raahat in 2015 was the last time that Air India was pressed into service to evacuate Indians from a war zone. The national carrier, with help from the Indian Air Force  (IAF) and naval vessels, helped to evacuate 4,640 Indians and 960 foreign nationals from war-torn Yemen. A similar large-scale evacuation exercise may be launched this time too, and while IAF planes have already sprung into action, bringing back the Indian ambassador to Afghanistan and around 150 other people, including staff from the embassy in Kabul, security personnel and some other stranded Indian nationals, Air India has been asked to keep a couple of planes on standby.

The one-of-its-kind mega Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) to repatriate Indians stranded in foreign lands in the face of the pandemic also showcased the valour of the Air India staff. Since the start of the mission in May last year, till August 18 this year, the Air India group has carried a total of 23,51,922 inbound and 16,27,580 outbound passengers. Not only that, even before the start of the VBM, the national carrier had flown to the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan in China, and also to one of the worst Covid hotspots at the start of last year, Italy, to rescue stranded people. Air India also evacuated people from a quarantined ship off the coast of Japan and carried evacuees from Iran to quarantine facilities in India. 

The Air India B777-200LR coming from San Francisco. Wikimedia Commons/airindiavirtual.net/Sachin Gnath

Air India crew have flown far and wide to carry people home and reunite families even as the coronavirus and its various strains went on the rampage across the world. They have also carried Covid vaccines, Covid aid and other essential cargo within the country and also between India and abroad.

Also read: 7 crippling problems Air India employees faced during Covid-19 battle

In the process, the Air India crew have been exposed to some of the worst infections ever known to mankind. Add to it the apparent unwillingness of the Indian government to include aviation staff under the definition of frontline workers for the purpose of priority Covid vaccination. This resulted in many of the brave men and women in India's aviation sector going deep inside Covid hotspots without the protective cover afforded by inoculation. The result: many have perished in the line of duty. The national carrier lost five pilots in a month itself in May. According to a response by Minister of State for Civil Aviation General VK Singh in Parliament on July 22, a total of 3,523 Air India staff have been infected by the coronavirus, out of which, 56 had succumbed till July 14, 2021. The general consensus among the friends and family of the deceased pilots has been that they could have been saved with timely Covid vaccination.      

The IPG was the first to take the initiative in April to ensure vaccination for aircrew. The union raised concerns over the lack of vaccination for the aircrew through its representation to the Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on April 16 and to the Air India CMD Rajiv Bansal on April 28. The government, however, continued to dilly-dally, though the airline arranged for vaccination of its staff.  

"Until how long will our service to the nation be taken for granted considering the pay cut and the lack of recognition of our contribution throughout the pandemic?" the IPG had enquired. 

Air India employees have seen deep pay cuts in the wake of the Covid-induced downturn in the aviation industry. The IPG and another Air India pilot union -- the Indian Commercial Pilots' Association (ICPA) -- called on the then Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri and the airline's Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) Rajiv Bansal to reverse the pay cuts, The Hindu reported in March this year. They pointed out that the pay cuts amounted to 58% since April and 55% since October last year. Air India pilots are paid a combination of base salaries and allowances and the latter make up to 60-70% of the total pay package of the pilots. The pay cut, therefore, has hit the pilots the hardest. Moreover, instead of the fixed 70 hours' payment, which is the industry norm, pilots were being paid in terms of the actual flying done. There was a 40% cut on the hourly rate of payment too.      

The IPG lamented that the only measure that the company had pledged to take to compensate the next of kin of the deceased employees involves an "ad-hoc payment". "Air India is a supposed world-class organisation, it should have a welfare scheme or some sort of a benevolent scheme or some sort of a payout to an employee's next of kin in case of loss of life. You can't just be paying a Rs 10 lakh payout. We are not even earning half of what we used to earn. Pre-Covid, a pilot used to take home about Rs 5 lakh a month. You can't just give two months of pay. So we are expecting and we are hoping for better. We are expecting our company to do better for us," a senior pilot observed. 

Still, the Air India pilots have soldiered on. However, in their bid to wipe tears and bring families together, their own families have been torn apart. "(We have seen) the worst of both worlds. You actually expose yourself and you get criticised as well," the senior pilot said. "We will keep doing our job. We are not even talking about the pay cut anymore. The basic obligation that we feel the company has towards us is something (in the form of) a welfare scheme or some sort of life coverage."

The extension of FDTL by the pilots of the two flights coming from the US just goes to show that despite being treated unjustly, Air India employees are too imbued with the zeal to serve mankind to waver from their duty path.

(Cover image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/airliners.net/Chris Lofting)