Indian national carrier Air India has been praised for making a number of flights to rescue stranded Indians in countries affected by the coronavirus. Now a group of pilots have alleged that their safety was compromised – an accusation the airline denies.
The Air India fleet has long been used by the government to assist Indians in crisis. This includes everything from the delivery of emergency supplies during natural disasters to the air transportation of citizens of Middle Eastern countries during the Arab Spring of 2011.
But this time, as Covid-19 travels the world, crew members have made several allegations of serious shortcomings in crew and passenger safety on recent rescue flights.
In a letter seen by the BBC, the Association of Executive Pilots, an organization that represents long-haul airline pilots, says that they received “fragile” pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) which “Tear and disintegrate easily during rescue flights”.
The letter, which was sent to the airline and the aviation ministry, added that “the disinfection processes [for aircraft] lack best practices from international industry. “
“These deficiencies increase the risk of viral exposure and contamination of equipment and can even lead to community transmissions of Covid-19 among crew members, passengers and the general public,” the letter said.
The Indian Pilots ‘Guild, which also represents Air India long-haul pilots, wrote to the ministry citing similar concerns. The BBC also saw this letter.
An experienced pilot, who did not wish to be identified, told the BBC that it is not that the crew “does not want to work during these test times for the country”.
“All we ask is that proper security procedures be followed. If we don’t have the right PPE and disinfection process, we risk the safety of everyone on the plane, our family and the residents of the buildings we live in, “he said.
“We are compared to soldiers and it is very humiliating. But you have to give the right equipment to your soldiers. “
An Air India spokesperson recognized the letters and said, “Air India is proud of its crew. “
“Our crew has shown extraordinary strength, integrity and dedication. All possible measures have been taken to ensure their health and safety. The best PPE available is purchased for our crew, ”he told the BBC.
The pilot also added that, in some cases, the 14-day quarantine standard for anyone 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 country affected by Covid-19 was asked to fly back within seven days.
The spokesman denied the allegations, saying that “all the crews who have flown international flights have been quarantined”.
“They were advised to isolate themselves if they developed symptoms and to report immediately. We follow all of the government’s quarantine guidelines, ”he added.
The two letters add that the crew has no Covid-19 specific insurance policy and have no medical staff to examine them upon their return from international flights.
“Medical teams across India are now covered by a government regime, although, surprisingly, air crews are not,” the letters say.
The pilot added that “we don’t compare ourselves to the medical staff – they are really the front line soldiers.”
“But we also risk our lives, and insurance will only reassure us,” he said.
The association also highlighted the issue of crew unpaid allowances.
“Our flight allowances, which represent 70% of our total fees, have remained unpaid since January 2020. This is extremely unfair,” the letter said.
The pilot added that this ran counter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s request to employers not to withhold or cut wages during this time of crisis.
“I repeat once again that we don’t mind serving the nation, but we need our wages to be protected. We need to be able to take care of our families, ”he said.
The airline spokesperson said that “all wages have been paid and efforts are underway to clear some outstanding dues”, but the pilots say the benefits withheld represent about 70% of their total earnings.
Air India is faced with massive debts and several efforts to sell it have failed.
However, despite this, the airline is planning a massive operation to evacuate foreigners to India at great cost.
Passengers will be picked up in several major Indian cities and flown to Frankfurt, but Air India will not bring back any Indian citizen who could still be trapped in Europe.
The pilot said “it is commendable that Air India is helping those who need it” but asked why the Indians could not be on the return flights because the planes would come home empty.
“I want to emphasize that we will not stop the rescue and resupply missions at all costs. We just want to be heard, ”said another pilot to the BBC.
“Otherwise, we feel like we are alone in this battle when we all have to work together and take care of each other. “