7 crippling problems Air India employees faced during Covid-19 battle

When most of their fellow citizens have stayed in the confines and security of their homes, Air Indians have taken their flights to the very heart of Covid-19 hotspots

7 crippling problems Air India employees faced during Covid-19 battle
Passengers onboard an Air India Vande Bharat Mission flight from Sydney. Image courtesy: Twitter/@cgisydney/

Air India has been at the forefront of the country's battle against the novel coronavirus. The employees of India's flag carrier have rendered yeoman's service, putting national duties above personal wellbeing, during the period of the pandemic, and especially during the nationwide lockdown.

When most of their fellow citizens have stayed in the confines and security of their homes, Air Indians have taken their flights to the very heart of Covid-19 hotspots, rescuing Indians stranded in foreign lands and also sending back foreigners willing to return home. They have emerged as the fulcrum for the government's mega Vande Bharat Mission, which till October 18, had seen the Air India Group operating 3,588 inbound and 3,589 outbound flights, and carrying more than nine lakh passengers.

Air India has also been the linchpin of the air bubble arrangements, which are currently in force with 17 countries. These arrangements allow the Indian carriers to operate flights to and from the partner countries, while the carriers of the partner countries have reciprocal rights to operate flights to and from India.

Air India has also been at the heart of the government's efforts under Lifeline Udan programme to send medical and other essential cargo to the remotest corners of the country so that the lockdown doesn't precipitate a panic situation in the country. Air India has had a rich legacy of national service, evacuating stricken Indian nationals time and again from foreign shores.

"At one call the men and machines of Air India have always stepped forward during national emergencies whether it has been a war scenario, a viral outbreak or natural calamities. The national carrier and its men always took pride in coming forward for a national cause. Air India has always been a great airline and is still the country’s largest international carrier," former CMD of Air India Ashwani Lohani wrote in The Outlook.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the nation in hailing the work done by Air India during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Extremely proud of this team of @airindiain, which has shown utmost courage and risen to the call of humanity. Their outstanding efforts are admired by several people across India. #IndiaFightsCorona https://t.co/I7Czxep7bj

— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 23, 2020

However, all the kind words of appreciation don't seem to amount to much when you consider the hardships faced by the Air India staff at various points, and these are not merely hardships arising out of the risk of contracting the deadly Covid-19. It is easy to see the stellar work done by the Air India staff during the corona crisis, but not many are aware of the troubles they had to go through to fulfil their duties. 

The following are seven major difficulties faced by the Air India staff during their corona war:

1. Salary woes

The pilots of the national airline complained in May that they have not got full salaries for the past three months, or since February, and they are fast approaching breaking point. The Indian Commercial Pilots' Association (ICPA) -- an Air India union that represents pilots flying domestic and short-haul international flights -- has written to civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri that the management has been indifferent and employee welfare is only being paid lip service despite the employees being instrumental in the fight against Covid-19 from the very beginning.

"... We have a wage backlog of three months, having not been paid full wages since February. This is well before the coronavirus crisis began, so reduced cash flow cannot be used as an excuse. Even our basic salary, which is a fraction of our wages is not released on time," the ICPA letter said.

The association had been complaining about salary and allowances since the pre-Covid-19 times. In a letter to the civil aviation minister in December last year, it said that the salaries and allowances of Air India pilots have not been paid on time for the past two-three months. The ICPA also pointed out to the exodus of experienced CAT 3B-qualified co-pilots to other airlines, and highlighted that Air India pilots were being “paid only half of what other air carriers are offering”.

The airline's management had recently announced a 10% cut in the allowances of all employees except cabin crew for three months from March 2020 in the wake of Covid-19. Furthermore, the special allowance for pilots was withdrawn and the layover allowance for the cabin crew was revised downward.

The Air India unions have, therefore, called for a rollback of the airline's decision to cut salaries as it goes against the government's instructions on employee welfare and timely payment of wages without deductions. They gave the example of IndiGo in this regard. The Air India employees have asked to be treated at par with other public sector undertakings (PSUs) during the lockdown. The unions said that this pay cut would dent the morale of the employees and have a cascading effect on the economy.  

Indeed as pointed out by Air India pilot unions ICPA and Indian Pilots' Guild (IPG) the pilots of the airline would be the worst affected by the 10% salary cut.

Air India's unions have also moved the Bombay High Court challenging the airline's decision of a 10% salary cut. The petition said that the salary deduction for March was "especially unjust" as most employees had worked from 1-24 March, which is the period before the lockdown was imposed.

The airline even told its employees that “enquiries on reimbursement of bills, sick leave, fitness certificate, are considered as undesirable”.

The airline had also come up with a policy to send some employees on leave without pay for up to five years.

According to a report in June, the debt-ridden airline also planned to reduce the guaranteed 70 hours flying allowance for the pilots to 30-35 hours as a cost-cutting measure in view of the pandemic.

In July, it cut the monthly allowances of its employees who drew a gross salary of over Rs 25,000 per month by up to 50%. It cut the salary of its cabin and cockpit crew with retrospective effect from 1 April 2020.

According to a Moneycontrol report, Air India pilots got basic salary for June and allowances for April in July, but the allowances were down by more than 80%. The basic salaries were also affected.

The pay of the Air India pilots would be reduced by a total of 60% (40% on salary and 85% on allowances), while the top management will take a 50% cut only on their allowances, the Hindustan Times reported in July. This led the senior pilots to see red as the pilots' allowances constitute 70% of their salaries, while allowances make up only a small portion of the salaries of the top management. The latter's pay cut would be just 3.5-4%.

The Air India unions had pointed out that the airline's top management has "deviously exempted themselves from any meaningful austerity cut... while pilots and cabin crew who are the frontline warriors flying and risking their lives are forced to bear the maximum cut."

According to the Air India management, 11 types of allowances for pilots would be reduced by 40%, but the pilots say that their flying allowance has been cut by nearly 85%.

Air India would also pay allowances for a maximum of 20 hours instead of 70. "The hourly rate is reduced by 50% and the assured hours are reduced from 70 to 20 hours, ie, 70%. The two combined amount to an 85% reduction in our current wages..." the senior-most pilots wrote in a letter to the CMD, the Times of India reported. The ICPA and IPG have alleged that the pilots have not been paid 70% of their pay since April, according to a News18 report in July.

The flying crew will be paid according to the actual number of hours flown, the airline added. The airline's senior-most pilots have warned that these harsh measures could lead to "potentially disastrous psychological impact" on some employees.

2. Poor quality of protective gear

The Indian Pilots' Guild (IPG) wrote to Air India CMD Rajiv Bansal on 28 March flagging the poor quality of protective equipment that is being provided to the flight crew during rescue flights. By that time, Air India had operated rescue flights to China, Italy, Japan and Israel, and carried evacuees from Iran to Jaisalmer for being quarantined. The IPG letter pointed out, "shoe covers have failed in as little as 10 minutes, gloves in 3 hours, hand sanitisers on board have not been provided in sufficient quantity, the hazmat suits have been ill-fitting and available only in limited quantity, increasing the risk of rupture".

The letter emphasised that the risk of contagion is very high for the flight crew given the nature of work, and if corners are cut even at the height of the pandemic, the entire purpose of the government initiative would be lost, which would have repercussions on not only the airline industry but the entire country.    

The Executive Pilots' Association (EPA) wrote to the civil aviation minister complaining of "substandard, ill-fitting and flimsy" personal protective equipment (PPE) provided to the flying crew that "tear/disintegrate easily on rescue flights". It also highlighted that sufficient amounts of sanitisers are not provided and the disinfection processes do not match up to industry best practices.

The IPG said that these deficiencies compound the chances of viral exposure and equipment contamination, and may even cause community (stage-3) transmission of the novel coronavirus among the crew members, passengers and the public at large as most of them live in large residential societies.

This was highlighted also by an air hostess on board a flight that had brought foreign nationals stuck in different parts of India to Mumbai in an interview with Moneycontrol.

The Air India management, however, said that all possible steps have been taken to ensure the safety of the aircrew.

The risk that the Air India crew has been operating can be measured by the fact that five pilots who flew cargo flights to the Covid-19 epicentre China have tested positive for the deadly virus. Two members of the airline's engineering services subsidiary AIESL have also been reported to have been corona-infected.

In July, two leading Air India pilot unions said in a letter to CMD Rajiv Bansal that 55 pilots had already contracted the virus. In an internal circular dated July 20, the airline noted that some of its employees had died due to the disease. 

3. Lack of cooperation from Air India Medical Services Department

The EPA letter pointed out that it was communicated by the department that the company doctors would be working from home and would be available only over the phone. It was as if any illness suffered by the flight crew and their families because of these flights to bio-hazard frontlines was the sole responsibility of the crew members. The association urged the civil aviation minister to ensure that all resources of the Air India Medical Services Department be made available 24X7 for the flight crew and their families for consultations, coordination with respective state health departments and Covid-19 testing and treatment.

4. Lack of Covid-specific insurance

The EPA letter decries the lack of additional Covid-related insurance for the flight crew considering the risk that they have been working in. This leaves the flight crew and their families extremely anxious and vulnerable as life and non-life insurance companies could invoke Force Majeure clauses in the case of a mass Covid-19 outbreak, which would free them of the obligations under the insurance contract. This is particularly important because an airline flight crew, unlike many other professional groups, have to mandatorily be medically fit to earn their livelihood.

4. No SOPs to tackle Covid-19-related issues 

The EPA noted that there isn't an adequate understanding of the issues faced by the crew members at the Corona frontline. It has, therefore, called for at least one senior executive each from the finance, medical services and personnel departments to be sent on rescue flights to "boost crew morale, gain a better understanding of field requirements and to formulate tailor-made and more efficient work processes related to the Covid crisis, which are non-existent at this time." It has also requested a dedicated team of doctors to be sent on the rescue flights to take care of any ill passengers and prevent any medical diversions.

6. Ostracisation at housing societies

Shockingly, Air India's corona warriors, who had rescued over a thousand fellow citizens stranded in China, Italy and Japan, were being hounded, ostracised and even reported to the police by their neighbours and vigilante Residents Welfare Association (RWA) members in some housing societies of Delhi and Mumbai. “These vigilantes conveniently forgot that many a spouse, parent, sibling, child and near and dear one have been brought home safe and secure from (Covid-19) affected countries," Air India said in a statement. A "deeply distressed" Puri requested all concerned authorities to ensure the safety of these aviation professionals, including those under self-quarantine.  

7. Passenger misbehaviour

The air hostess who talked to Moneycontrol mentioned that the passengers were totally uncooperative and treated the flight as any commercial one, despite the cabin crew reiterating that it was an emergency/medical flight. Most of them were not wearing masks or maintaining social distance, hadn't been quarantined, or taken any tests to check for Covid-19. They made fun of the hazmat suits worn by the flight crew and shared that her colleagues had similar ordeals. The passengers kept asking for more refreshments and even kept walking up to the resting area of the cabin crew to ask for tea or coffee.