Renewed Covid scare: DGCA relaxes rules for BA test to identify drunken airline crew

The DGCA clarified that if an aviation employee is seen displaying Covid-19 symptoms, he/she would be exempted from undergoing the BA test

Renewed Covid scare: DGCA relaxes rules for BA test to identify drunken airline crew
Representative image

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has relaxed the breath analyser (BA) test requirements for pilots and cabin crew members in view of the rapidly worsening Covid-19 situation in India. 

Indian airlines may now conduct random pre-flight BA tests for 10% -- instead of 25% -- of the pilots and cabin crew members operating domestic flights on a daily basis, the DGCA said in its order dated April 27, 2021, according to a Times of India report. Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs) are also to be subjected daily to random BA tests before the commencement of duty at each station. All crew members flying on international flights need to undergo pre-flight BA tests. 

The pre-flight medical requirements for private aircraft operators, on the other hand, have been kept unchanged considering the relatively low scale of their operations, which makes it easier for them to arrange sterile testing equipment for crew members. 

The DGCA said that this direction is purely temporary and would be in force till further orders and subject to final outcome of the petition filed in the Delhi High Court by the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA) -- an Air India union representing pilots flying narrow-body planes on short-haul domestic and international routes. 

The BA test, which essentially requires the examinees to blow into a tube to check if they are in a drunken state, was temporarily suspended by the DGCA in March 2020 following demands from pilots as the coronavirus started to gain a foothold. 

The DGCA declared on March 29, 2020, "Due to the extraordinary circumstances in view of the outbreak of Covid-19 and also in view of the directions issued by Hon'ble High Court of Delhi and Hon'ble High Court of Kerala, the conduct of breath analyser test in respect of all aviation personnel as required under subject Civil Aviation Requirements in force is temporarily suspended at all airports till further orders."    

Also read: Why coronavirus-spooked aviation sector rushed to suspend breath analyser test        

The order came shortly after the ICPA petitioned the aviation regulator calling for a stay of the BA test. Another Air India union, the Indian Pilots Guild (IPG), representing pilots flying on long-haul international routes, had made a similar request.

The BA test is a common method of checking alcohol content through a person's breath and consists of blowing into a machine. According to the aviation rules in India, all flight crew members have to go through this test before operating a flight, and after the flight, in case a pre-flight test is not possible. It is the same technique that the traffic police use to curb drink driving.

The fear regarding the BA test gained ground when a SpiceJet pilot tested positive for coronavirus on March 28 last year.

In March 2020 itself, the Delhi High Court had put on hold the BA test through the tube process for air traffic controllers (ATCs) at all airports, saying that in the wake of the coronavirus scare, the health of ATCs can't be put at further risk. It directed the Directorate General of Medical Services (DGMS-Air) to convene a meeting of the DGCA, Airports Authority of India (AAI) and Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) to come up with an alternative to the BA test that is not invasive and does not increase the chances of the spread of coronavirus. The court was hearing a plea by the Air Traffic Controllers' Guild (India), regarding the suspension of the BA test and the use of alternative modes of testing, using, for example, blood and urine samples.

The BA test was resumed in September 2020 and airlines were asked to conduct random pre-flight BA tests for 10% of the crew operating domestic flights and 100% for international flights. In March this year, the 10% cap on BA tests on domestic flights was hiked to 25%. 

However, the second and more virulent wave sweeping across India had impelled pilot associations to call for a suspension of the BA test again. 

"... in light of this pandemic and the ease with which the disease gets transmitted, we seek a temporary suspension of the mandatory requirement for pre-flight and post-flight (BA) tests. Blowing into the apparatus for the purpose of the test inside small testing chambers leaves scope for contagion to spread," ICPA General Secretary Captain Praveen Keerthi wrote in a letter to the DGCA on April 13, The Times of India reported. 

Later in April, the Federation of Indian Pilots (FIP), which claims to represent around 5,000 pilots, also urged the DGCA to suspend the BA test with immediate effect to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, according to a PTI report. The FIP pointed out that the testing machines are often used on multiple individuals, some of whom may be carrying the coronavirus without showing any symptoms. 

On April 27, the Delhi High Court had directed the DGCA to form a medical panel to examine if BA tests of pilots and cabin crew members have to be conducted or blood tests can be used as an alternative. The court order, which came on a plea by Air India unions seeking a suspension of the BA tests, asked the committee to present its report before the next hearing on May 5. 

Also read -- Covid tsunami mars recovery: DGCA keeps capacity unchanged, extends fare caps

Importantly, now while relaxing the BA test requirements, the DGCA has clarified that if an aviation employee is seen displaying Covid-19 symptoms, he/she would be exempted from undergoing the BA test and would be removed from duty. Such a  case would not be regarded as a missed BA case, and such a person would then undergo necessary examinations and return to duty only after being declared fit.        

Every aviation personnel are required to submit an undertaking that he/she is not under the influence of alcohol and had not consumed alcohol or any psychoactive substance in the past 12 hours from the time of reporting for duty. The undertaking would come with the warning of strict disciplinary action in case of violation of the undertaking. The process of submitting the undertaking has to be done in the presence of a medical representative in accordance with the relevant section of the Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) and would have to be captured on camera/CCTV. 

The DGCA order also stated that the person carrying out the BA tests must ensure hygiene conditions, including using personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, disposable gloves, and must see to it that the testing area is not crowded, the integrity and sanitary condition of the BA tubes/mouthpiece are maintained and the BA testing equipment is sanitised using ultra-violet (UV) sterilisers before every use.    

According to a report in The Times of India, blood tests are pretty accurate ways of checking body alcohol content. Urine tests, however, are less accurate than blood or breath tests, even though they are easy to conduct. Breath analysers provide instant results and hence are preferred by law enforcement agencies and by companies monitoring the conduct of employees. But blood and urine tests are safer as they are done in a controlled laboratory environment. Saliva and hair tests can also be done as an alternative to the breath test.

Breathalysers, however, suffer from serious drawbacks, a Newatlas.com article pointed out. For instance, readings can be thrown off track if the examinee had used mouthwash or breath fresheners, or by acetone in the breath of diabetics. Also, users have to blow into breathalysers for 10 full seconds. Keeping these in mind, scientists of the University at Albany have been working on test strips that can be simply applied to a user's skin. Enzymes in the strip react with the person's sweat to give an idea of body alcohol.

Meanwhile, India's Covid-19 surge continued to be alarming. The country added more than three lakh cases for the ninth consecutive day on April 30. The country added 3,86,452 new daily cases, while active cases rose by 85,414 on April 30. Deaths increased by 3,498 to reach a total of 2,08,330.