Air India agrees to vaccinate staff, but only after union's threat

The Air India union said the pilots were in no position to continue risking the lives without Covid-19 vaccination

Air India agrees to vaccinate staff, but only after union's threat
An Air India plane carries Covaxin boxes to Kolkata. Image courtesy: Twitter/@aaikolairport

The management of Air India, who has had a long history of being at loggerheads with the employees, has finally agreed to arrange Covid-19 vaccines for its staff. This major victory for the employees of the national carrier, however, did not come easily. It was, in fact, only after threats and arm-twisting by a powerful pilot union that Air India said that all employees would be inoculated by May-end. 

"Since May 1, as all persons 18 years and above can be vaccinated, a schedule for vaccination is now being drawn up and it is expected to commence as early as next week. All employees will be vaccinated by end of this month, that is May 2021. The schedule is also being drawn up keeping in mind that crew who do not have fixed working days," Air India said in a statement, according to a report in the Business Standard.    

The company added that vaccination camps have already been held on office premises for employees aged 45 years and above. 

The Air India management was pushed to act after the Indian Commercial Pilots' Association (ICPA) -- a union representing Air India pilots flying narrow-body planes on short-haul domestic and international routes -- issued a stern warning: no vaccination would mean no work. 

"We have gone above and beyond during this pandemic, risking life and limb to ensure our citizens' well-being. Due to our unwavering support, VBM (Vande Bharat Mission) and relief operations continue to run smoothly even in the face of a resurgence of even deadlier strains of Covid-19. All we got in return for our dedication and sacrifices is a massive discriminatory pay cut," the ICPA wrote in a letter to Air India Director (Operations) RS Sandhu on May 4.

Also read: SpiceJet drawing up schedule to vaccinate staff against coronavirus soon

"With no health care support to the flying crew, no insurance, and a massive opportunistic pay cut, we are in no position to continue risking the lives of our pilots without vaccination. Our finances are already spread thin covering our bedridden colleagues and provisioning for families lest we inadvertently infect them with the deadly virus that is an ever-present occupational hazard for us," the ICPA said, before sounding an ultimatum: "If Air India fails to set up vaccination camps on a pan-Indian basis for the flying crew above the age of 18 years on priority, we will stop work."

The union pointed out that many of the crew members have been diagnosed as Covid-positive and are struggling to access oxygen cylinders. The severe crunch of oxygen has made India's fight against Covid-19 an extremely difficult one. Add to that shortage of vaccines amid a Covid surge that seems to be running amok, and the mess that the country finds itself in becomes easy to see. 

An Air India plane carried oxygen cylinders, concentrators and negative pressure carriers from Incheon, South Korea to India. Image courtesy: Twitter/@IndiainROK

The ICPA alleged that the management "sees no injustice in organising vaccine camps at (a) few bases but excludes pilots". Consequently, employees working on the desk and working from home have been allowed to be vaccinated, while the flying crew have been left unprotected. 

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri had said in Parliament on February 11 that a total of 1,995 Air India personnel, including those deployed on the VBM, tested Covid-positive till February 1. Out of them, 583 were hospitalised. Nineteen Air India groundstaff died due to Covid-19 and other complications, though there were no fatalities among the aircrew, Puri added. 

As of January 1, 2021, Air India had about 12,350 staff on its payroll, including 8,290 permanent staff and 4,060 contractual staff, according to data provided by an Air India spokesperson. Therefore, going by the figures provided by Puri, about one-sixth of the carrier's staff were infected by the coronavirus. An internal circular dated July 20, 2020, said that many employees of the company were contracting the virus and some of them had also succumbed to the pandemic, according to a PTI report. Two leading pilot unions of the airline complained to Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) Rajiv Bansal that 55 Air India pilots had been infected by the virus. 

Also read: Govt drags feet on Covid jabs for aviation staff, airlines make own arrangements

The Air India group has played a pivotal role in various government initiatives to mitigate the effects of the pandemic and the lockdowns and travel bans that came in its wake. Right after the nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 25 last year, the government launched the Lifeline Udan mission to send medical and other essential supplies to the remotest corners of the country and beyond, so that the lockdown measures didn't cause panic among the public. Air India and its subsidiary Alliance Air anchored that mission. 

An Air India flight getting ready to carry passengers from Thailand to India under the VBM. Image courtesy: Twitter/@IndiainThailand

Then came India's mega VBM repatriation exercise -- the largest in the world. Air India and its low-cost arm Air India Express flew between India and various parts of the world to carry home Indians stranded abroad in the face of lockdowns, travel bans and vanishing livelihoods. 

Till May 8, 2021, the Air India group operated 12,365 inbound and 12,377 outbound flights, carrying 19,09,255 and 14,49,214 passengers respectively. The VBM has now been running for a little over a year. However, even before the VBM kicked off, the Air India group has been organising repatriation of stricken Indian and foreign nationals since February 2020 in some of the worst Covid-19 hotspot countries of the world, including China, from where the virus had originated. It had also been providing safe flight for foreigners stranded in India to their native places. Air India employees have been hailed for putting the cause of the nation above personal safety.                 

The carrier has also been providing commercial flights under India's air bubble agreements with 27 countries. 

When India started vaccine rollout, Air India stepped forward to dispatch vaccines to different parts of the country and abroad. With India currently reeling under oxygen shortage, Air India has also been carrying oxygen cylinders and concentrators to India from different parts of the world. 

During all these missions to rescue stranded people, connect families, keep the world moving and ensure an uninterrupted supply of Covid aid and other essential materials, the Air India employees (and for that matter, all aviation employees) have been exposed to a real risk of contracting the coronavirus.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) issued guidelines on May 6 for the vaccination of all stakeholders, while suggesting that priority be given to Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs), pilots and cabin crew of airlines and mission-critical and passenger-facing staff. 

These MoCA guidelines were a result of the government's acknowledgement that "during the surge of Covid-19, the aviation community has risen to the occasion to provide unhindered services for the movement of people in need and the essential cargo (critical medical cargo like vaccines, medicines, oxygen concentrators, etc)." 

Vaccination on priority has been a strident demand of the aviation sector. India started its vaccination drive in mid-January this year, with emphasis on healthcare workers. The MoCA had requested the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) to consider the frontline workers in aviation for Covid-19 vaccination on a priority basis after healthcare workers are given the jabs.

The civil aviation secretary had written to the state governments on April 27 to consider personnel involved in aviation and related services for vaccination on priority. However, the states are taking time to react, and as a result, the airlines have started to formulate plans themselves and contact hospitals for inoculating their staff against the coronavirus.  

Airlines like IndiGo, Vistara and AirAsia India have already started vaccination drives, while GoAir said it aims to vaccinate most of its employees by May-end. SpiceJet said a schedule is being drawn up and would vaccinate its staff soon.