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

Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola had written to his counterpart in the health ministry to consider vaccinating aviation staff on priority

Covid hits nearly 2,000 Air India employees despite study showing low risk inflight
An Air India A319 aircraft. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/Ken Fielding

Air India staff is turning out to be the worst-affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, one-sixth of the airline's staff, which means 1,995 employees, including Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) crew, had contracted the virus till February 1, 2021. 

Of the Covid-affected Air India employees, 583 were hospitalised, the minister told the Parliament.

In a written reply, Puri said that though there have been no Covid-related fatalities among aircraft crew at Air India, 19 ground employees have died. 

“The Covid-19 test for the crew is undertaken as per Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) issued by the medical department of Air India, which is based on advisory guidelines issued by the government from time to time," he 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.

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In January, Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola had written to his counterpart in the health ministry Rajesh Bhushan to consider vaccinating frontline workers in the aviation sector on priority, acting upon a representation by airlines and airports. The proposal is being considered by the health ministry.

Global airlines, such as Singapore Airlines and United Airlines, are planning to get all their employees vaccinated before the Covid-19 vaccines are rolled out for the general public.

Puri had said in September last year that 829 Air India employees, including pilots and cabin crew members, had contracted the coronavirus during flight operations till September 10, 2020, according to a PTI report. 

The airline sector, which has been one of the worst-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, has not budged from its responsibility of keeping the nation going, first carrying medical supplies and other essential cargo to the remotest corners during the lockdown, when regular air travel was strictly banned, then by repatriating stranded people to and from India (under VBM), and then coming forward to ensure that at least the domestic air travel ban did not stretch for an indefinite period of time. 

What's more, even before the lockdown was imposed, India's national carrier Air India had flown deep into some of the Covid-19 hotspots like China, Italy and Iran to bring back stranded Indians and also foreign nationals. Air bubble agreements have also ensured that international travel to and from India did occur even if in a limited way. These have, however, tended to put the airline employees at high risk of exposure to the coronavirus. The emergence of new strains of the virus in a number of countries has added to the problem.    

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The high incidence of Covid-19 infection among the Air India staff seems to be at odds with an International Air Transport Association (IATA) report in October 2020 that suggested that there was a low risk for coronavirus transmission inflight. 

“The risk of a passenger contracting Covid-19 while onboard appears very low. With only 44 identified potential cases of flight-related transmission among 1.2 billion travellers, that’s one case for every 27 million travellers. We recognise that this may be an underestimate but even if 90% of the cases were unreported, it would be one case for every 2.7 million travellers. We think these figures are extremely reassuring. Furthermore, the vast majority of published cases occurred before the wearing of face coverings inflight became widespread,” David Powell, IATA’s Medical Advisor, had said.

Aircraft airflow systems, High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, the natural barrier of the seatback, the downward flow of air and high rates of air exchange efficiently reduce the risk of disease transmission on board in normal times, the IATA report said. 

The addition of mask-wearing amid pandemic concerns adds a further and significant extra layer of protection, which makes being seated in close proximity in an aircraft cabin safer than most other indoor environments, the report added.

(Cover image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/Ken Fielding)