Air India pilots cry neglect after Covid snatches 3 captains in 5 days

Air India union IPG lamented that the only measure the company had pledged to take to compensate the next of kin of deceased employees involves an 'ad-hoc payment'

Air India pilots cry neglect after Covid snatches 3 captains in 5 days
An Air India Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/John Taggart

Air India employees, who have put their lives in danger for the cause of the nation, helping the government fight the Covid war and keeping the country ticking during these dark times, are paying the price for their yeoman service. However, the response from the airline management, primarily in terms of a loss of life coverage, has not been adequate, and this has led one of the airline's top pilot unions to speak up. 

Three senior commanders of the national carrier -- Captains Amitesh Prasad, Sandeep Rana and GPS Gill -- fell prey to the coronavirus within a span of just five days, which points towards how grave the situation has become, said the Indian Pilots' Guild (IPG), which represents pilots operating Air India's wide-body aircraft, in a letter to the company's Chairman and Managing Director Rajiv Bansal.

Captain Prasad landed in Bengaluru from San Francisco on April 15, the IPG informed. He travelled to Mumbai as staff on duty and started complaining of Covid-19 symptoms. On April 20, he did a Covid-19 test, which was positive. He was immediately shifted to the hospital, but his condition kept on deteriorating despite all medical efforts, and on May 9, he passed away. 

The fact that Captain Prasad returned from flight duty with Covid-19 symptoms and succumbed to the virus is being treated by the company with "indifference and borderline neglect", the IPG letter said. 

The union 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". 

According to the staff notice dated July 17, 2020, the family/legal heir of a permanent employee is to be paid Rs 10 lakh in case of the employee's death during the period of the pandemic. The policy was to be in force initially from April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021, and subject to review thereafter. The corresponding compensation amount payable to the families of fixed-term contract employees engaged directly by the company was decided to be Rs 5 lakh and casual employees, who have worked for a minimum continuous period of one year, were to be paid Rs 90,000.

Also read: How Vande Bharat Mission became key to achieve Atma Nirbhar Bharat

This compensation policy was not applicable to employees engaged through a contractor/service provider, though they are to be paid an amount equivalent to gross emoluments of two months' salary drawn by them on the condition that they have worked for a minimum continuous period of a year. 

Other than this, the company doesn't have any policy or welfare fund or benevolent scheme, a senior pilot, who requested to be anonymous, told Plane Vanilla.

  

"Ironically, this was never taken up in the past. We have realised this a little too late," he said, while adding, "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," he observed. 

Also read: Covid hits nearly 2,000 Air India employees despite study showing low risk inflight

The pilot gave the example of how Tata has been taking care of its employees in this regard. "If anybody loses his life in Covid, the last drawn salary until the employee turned 60 will be paid to the family. That is of course next level of benevolence," he said about the salt-to-aviation conglomerate. Interestingly, Air India had emerged out of Tata Airlines before independence and later passed into government hands. Tata had tried to regain control of its long-lost progeny at the turn of the millennium and, according to various media reports, is the frontrunner to acquire Air India back as part of the ongoing privatisation process.

The IPG letter provided other examples of how the next of kin of deceased employees are cared for in the government, public sector undertaking (PSU) and private airline sectors. 

"We were surprised to learn that a well respected Indian private airline runs a benevolent scheme with its employees where it covers a deceased pilot to the sum of Rs 5,00,00,000 in case of death. Why can’t the flag carrier create and provide something similar?" the IPG said. According to sources, the private airline referred to here, in all possibility, is IndiGo, which is India's biggest airline in terms of traffic.

An Air India plane brings Covid-19 vaccines to Myanmar. Image courtesy: Twitter/@DrSJaishankar

The letter pointed out that nationwide, PSUs have policies in place in case an employee dies. These include ex-gratia payment and compassionate employment. "Why is Air India the only PSU that is relatively complacent towards compensation in the case of the death of an employee?" the IPG asked. 

The Air India union also mentioned the Centre's 'Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package Insurance Scheme for Health Workers Fighting Covid-19', the Delhi government's policy of paying Rs 1 crore ex-gratia to any government or private sector employee who contracts the coronavirus and subsequently dies during the discharge of Covid-19 duty, and the Maharashtra government's announcement to pay Rs 50 lakh ex-gratia to its employees and then extending it to cover police personnel and teachers as well. 

"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? What steps are being taken to ensure that aircrew/employees will be taken care of in case Covid-19 is contracted? And more importantly, in the unfortunate event of the demise of an employee, how will the next of kin be compensated/looked after?" the IPG enquired. 

Also read -- Vande Bharat Mission: Mega Covid rescue builds on steady work by Air India, IAF

Indeed, Air India has been the linchpin of India's efforts to repatriate stranded people as part of the mega Vande Bharat Mission (VBM), send medical and other essential supplies to the remotest corners of the country and also carry vital supplies between India and other countries under the Lifeline Udan mission, connect India and the world under air bubble arrangements at a time when regular international air travel stays suspended in the wake of the pandemic, keep the country moving by operating domestic flights, and also carry Covid vaccines to different parts of the country and abroad and bring essential Covid relief materials to India from various parts of the world. Till May 22, 2021, the Air India group had operated 25,511 VBM flights to carry a total of 34,15,311 passengers. 

In fact, even before the VBM was launched in May last year, Air India had flown deep into some of the worst Covid hotspots at that time (February-March 2020) like China and Italy to bring back stranded Indians and even citizens of other countries. Air India evacuated people even from a quarantined ship off the coast of Japan and also carried evacuees from Iran to quarantine facilities in India.

"It is not about ego, but we are genuinely at risk. There was a time when there were millions of cases active in America and a few hundred cases active in India and at those times we did go," the pilot Plane Vanilla spoke to said, emphasising the need for aviation employees to be accorded priority sector status for vaccination.

"(We have seen) the worst of both worlds. You actually expose yourself and you get criticised as well," he said. "Pilots were locked out of their own housing societies. Then of course it (the coronavirus) spread rampantly in India and the story is over, but we had a harsh time at that time also. We should have been given frontline worker status at a very early stage, and to date, it is not acknowledged."      

When India started its vaccination drive in January this year, the then Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola, in a letter to his counterpart in the health ministry Rajesh Bhushan, had requested frontline workers of airlines and airports to be considered for priority vaccination, according to a PTI report. Then on April 27, Civil Aviation Secretary TK Pandey wrote to the state governments to consider personnel involved in aviation and related services for vaccination on priority.

As the states took time to react, airlines started to formulate plans themselves and contact hospitals for inoculating their staff against the coronavirus.  

"On April 16 and April 20, our union the IPG wrote to the management saying that we have been doing Vande Bharat for you since day one and till now Air India hasn't made any efforts to get us vaccinated. You send us out and bring us back from abroad, we are exposed to foreign strains. The least you could do is provide us protection," the pilot informed.  

"Then on May 1, the Director of Operations wrote back to us saying that everybody would be vaccinated and full efforts are being made. By May 2, emails were sent out to the entire pilot community to give their details and data were collected. Vaccination-wise there is no complaint. At this point the company has done its bit," he added.  

An Air India plane taking part in the Lifeline Udan mission. Image courtesy: Lifeline Udan

Readers would recollect that another Air India union, the Indian Commercial Pilots' Association (ICPA), which represents pilots flying narrow-body planes on short-haul domestic and international routes, in a letter to Air India's Director (Operations) Captain RS Sandhu on May 4 had threatened to stop work if vaccination was not arranged.  

Also read: Air India pilot unions fume at 'disproportionate' Covid pay cut, ask members to avoid airline bid

Air India pledged to vaccinate all its employees by May-end. However, after it had to cancel vaccination camps proposed to be held on May 11 and May 13 due to the government's inability to procure vaccines, the airline's vaccination drive seemed to have hit rough weather. However, the pilot Plane Vanilla spoke to said that the exercise is going on quite well. 

The Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) had issued guidelines on May 6 for the inoculation 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)." 

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said in Parliament on February 11 that a total of 1,995 Air India personnel, including those deployed on the VBM, had tested Covid-positive till February 1. Out of them, 583 were hospitalised. Nineteen Air India ground staff had 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.  

The IPG noted that Air India has been "the nation's ever-dependable carrier in times of need". "At the very least, Air India should show a similar kindness inwards as well towards its own staff in times of tragedy," it added.  

"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. That is necessary. That cannot be overlooked," said the pilot this website talked to.

(Cover image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/John Taggart)