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

Air India's Captain Harsh Tiwari was just 36 and is survived by his wife and five-year-old daughter

Covid horror: Air India loses 5th pilot in May, but aviation staff still taken for granted
Captain Harsh Tiwari (left) and an Air India tailfin. Image courtesy: Twitter/@GuildPilots and Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/moonm

The bad news just keeps coming. If losing four pilots to Covid-19 in a month alone was not enough, a fifth Air India pilot has succumbed to the deadly coronavirus in May. 

A young and enterprising Captain Harsh Tiwari passed away today (May 30, 2021). He was just 36 and is survived by his wife, five-year-old daughter, parents and sister. He was on the Boeing 777 fleet and was actively involved in Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) repatriation flights till the very end, informed the Indian Pilots' Guild (IPG), a union of Air India pilots flying widebody aircraft.

Captain Tiwari had joined as First Officer (FO) on the Airbus 320 fleet in 2016 and converted to an FO on the Boeing 777 wide-body fleet in 2019, a source informed Plane Vanilla.

Captain Tiwari was a contractual employee with the company, another source told Plane Vanilla. This means that the family/legal heir of the deceased captain would get Rs 5 lakh less than what a permanent employee would have got in case of death during the pandemic.

According to an Air India staff notice dated July 17, 2020, the compensation amount payable to the families of fixed-term contract employees engaged directly by the company was decided to be Rs 5 lakh. The amount is to be paid on an ad-hoc basis. "He had a very humble family background. His parents are elderly and retired. I don't know if he had been able to pay off his student loans." the source said.   

"WE HAVE LOST THE LIVES OF 5 AIR INDIA PILOTS IN THIS MONTH ALONE! MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY!" tweeted the IPG, significantly adding the hashtag #TakenForGranted. 

Indeed, since the very beginning of India's fight against Covid-19, Air India employees have been right at the frontline, going deep into some of the worst Covid hotspots across the world and within India, sometimes taking stranded people home and at other times carrying Covid aid and other essential supplies to far-flung regions. Through air bubble flights, they have kept India connected to the world at a time when scheduled commercial international air travel stays banned due to the pandemic.

They have brought Covid relief materials to India from abroad in their efforts to mitigate the acute shortage of materials like oxygen that had worsened the scenario in Covid-ravaged India. They have also transported vaccines across India and even to foreign lands.

Furthermore, since domestic flights resumed in May last year, the aircrew members have been playing their parts diligently.

Also read: Covid mayday for Air India as airline loses 4th captain in May

Operating in the searing heat of the pandemic for such a long time, often doing multiple flights in a short span of time, getting exposed to foreign and often more virulent strains of the virus, the aircrew ran the risk of getting infected sooner rather later. And that is what seems to have happened. In the bid to reconnect so many families separated by the pandemic and the resultant travel bans and lockdowns, the Air India aircrew are now seeing their own families being broken apart.  

And what did they get in return? Despite strident demands, and even requests by the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), aviation sector employees were not accorded priority status by the government for vaccination.

Later, airlines started to vaccinate their staff and the MoCA also issued guidelines in this regard. But by the time, vaccines were started to be administered, precious time was lost. The then Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola had written to his counterpart in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Rajesh Bhushan in January itself, when Covid vaccinations started in India, to consider inoculating the aviation staff after the healthcare workers, according to a PTI report.

Had that request been granted, so many of the aircrew may not have been denied this vital protective cover, and who knows, many of them may have still been alive. Shockingly, there seems to be an unwillingness to accept the aviation employees as frontline workers notwithstanding the stellar role played by them during the pandemic. It is almost forgotten that air travel is one of the easiest ways to import and spread virus strains far and wide. 

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

Pilots have also had to bear steep pay cuts, were hounded in their own housing societies and faced several other issues. "(We have seen) the worst of both worlds. You actually expose yourself and you get criticised as well," a senior pilot told Plane Vanilla. Consider all these and you feel that aviation employees are indeed taken for granted by the powers that be. 

According to MoCA data, till May 29, 2021, the Air India group had operated 25,903 flights, carrying a total of 34,46,223 passengers under the VBM. It has been a continuation of the national carrier's glorious history of service to the nation that had seen it play pivotal roles in evacuation missions in 1990 (Kuwait), 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).

Furthermore, just before the VBM was initiated, Air India had flown to Covid hotspots 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.

"We convey our heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family members and pray to the almighty to let his departed soul rest in peace and give courage to the members of the Tiwari family to bear this irreparable loss," wrote the Indian Commercial Pilots' Association (ICPA), an Air India union of pilots flying narrow-body planes on short-haul domestic and international routes. 

"Gone too soon and very young. Rest in peace Capt Harsh Tiwari. You will be missed," the ICPA added.

"Our deepest condolences to the family of the departed soul," wrote the IPG.

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, 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.

According to data provided by an Air India spokesperson, 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. Therefore, going by the figures provided by Puri, about one-sixth of the carrier's staff were infected by the coronavirus.

(Cover image courtesy: Twitter/@GuildPilots and Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/moonm)