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

Captain Prasad M Karmarkar, a senior pilot on the Boeing 777 fleet, breathed his last on May 27

Covid mayday for Air India as airline loses 4th captain in May
Captain Prasad M Karmarkar (left) was a senior pilot with Air India. Image courtesy: Twitter/@GuildPilots and Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/

May 2021 seems to be a very difficult month for Air India in terms of its human resources. After losing three pilots to Covid-19 in a matter of five days, the national carrier lost one more commander this month, also to the deadly disease. 

Captain Prasad M Karmarkar, a senior pilot on the Boeing 777 fleet, breathed his last on May 27. He was 53. Captain Karmarkar (June 25, 1967 – May 27, 2021) was actively involved in the government's mega Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) for the repatriation of people stranded in distant lands amid the global pandemic. Captain Karmarkar sacrificed himself fighting India's Covid war as a frontline worker, leaving many fond memories behind. 

"With great grief, we announce the loss of our beloved colleague, Captain Prasad Karmarkar. He tragically succumbed to his battle against Covid this evening (27th May 2021) at 6.30 pm," said the Indian Pilots' Guild (IPG), an Air India union of pilots flying widebody planes, in a condolence message. 

The IPG referred to Captain Karmarkar as "soft-spoken by nature, but a thorough gentleman", adding that he was well-known for his sincerity and hard work. 

Captain Karmarkar joined the national carrier in 1990 as an avionics engineer and moved on to flying seven years later. He served Air India for three decades and commanded the Airbus 310 and Boeing 777 planes. A senior pilot told Plane Vanilla that Captain Karmarkar was known to be "mild, polite and gentle". 

"He will be missed dearly. We extend our deepest condolences to the bereaved family and assure all our support," the IPG stated. "Our deepest sympathies to the family and to all who had the pleasure of knowing this gentleman," the union added. 

"Another precious soul gone too soon. Captain Prasad M Karmarkar, senior Air India commander passed away after battling Covid-19. May his soul rest in peace," said the ICPA, an Air India union of pilots flying narrow-body planes on short-haul domestic and international routes. 

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

Earlier in the month, the national airline had lost Captains Amitesh Prasad, Sandeep Rana and GPS Gill to Covid-19 in a matter of five days, from May 9 to May 14. Air India employees have been at the forefront, operating with zeal, passion and a commitment to the national cause during the heat of the pandemic, going deep into some of the worst Covid hotspots across the world. In fact, they had courageously put their hands up to operate evacuation flights from Covid-ravaged places like China and Italy even before the VBM was initiated. 

The Air India employees have played a stellar role in the success of not only the VBM, but also the Lifeline Udan mission, which was launched immediately after the nationwide lockdown last year to carry medical and other essential supplies to the remotest corners of the country, and also transport supplies between India and other parts of the world.

Through air bubble flights between India and a select group of countries, the employees of Air India had kept international commercial air travel going even in a limited way when scheduled commercial international passenger flights stay banned in India in the wake of the pandemic. More recently, Air India has operated flights to carry essential Covid aid to India from various parts of the world and take Covid vaccines to different parts of the country and abroad.

However, in the process, the Air India staff have been badly exposed to the coronavirus and its deadlier manifestations. Yet surprisingly, the government has still not accorded priority sector status to the aviation sector employees, even if only for administering vaccines. 

Four pilot deaths in a month is a stark reminder that things are fast approaching a stage of panic for India's aviation sector that has already been battered in a pecuniary sense, to a large extent due to a lack of government bailout. Top aviation consultancy firm CAPA India has said that the second Covid wave has taken Indian aviation to a point of no return.  

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. 

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

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 Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) had called for priority sector status to be granted to aviation employees, but with the appropriate authorities taking time to react, the MoCA had on May 6 issued guidelines 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. Accordingly, Indian airlines, including Air India had started to vaccinate their employees.

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