As Indian govt forgets Covid warriors in aviation, premier pilot body moves court

Friends and kin of the deceased pilots are unanimous in their belief that timely Covid vaccination could have saved precious lives

As Indian govt forgets Covid warriors in aviation, premier pilot body moves court
SpiceXpress airlifts 1,000 oxygen concentrators from Hong Kong to Delhi (left) and IndiGo's CarGo team handles Covid vaccines. Image courtesy: Twitter/@flyspicejet and @IndiGo6E

The Federation of Indian Pilots (FIP), the largest pan-Indian body of commercial pilots flying with both scheduled and non-scheduled airlines, has filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court, seeking, among other things, directives to the government for creating a separate category of Covid first responders called 'air transportation' workers for priority vaccinations. The FIP, which represents 5,619 pilots, has been pushed to take this step as the government continues to delay granting priority sector status to the aviation employees that would ensure their smooth vaccination. 

The FIP petition, a copy of which was seen by Plane Vanilla, also sought a proper insurance cover for the pilots who lose their lives or flying licence status to Covid or any accident/incident while operating Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) repatriation flights and air bubble flights that have served to keep India connected to the world at a time when regular international passenger travel has stayed suspended.

The petition called for adequate compensation in the case of death or medical unfitness (either permanent or temporary) as well. Furthermore, it sought a directive to the government to expressly indicate alternate employment and other benefits that the family members of pilots who succumb to Covid/lose permanent flying licence/die due to an accident or incident while operating VBM flights are entitled to. 

"Pilots, cabin crew and other airline staff are working unceasingly in the times of the pandemic and have rendered service to the nation. Several have lost their lives due to the Covid-19 outbreak. The pilots and other crew flying abroad are (at) the gravest risk of contracting foreign originating viruses which are yet unknown to the medical fraternity and the immunologists. Hence, it is necessary to take steps to ameliorate their sufferings," the FIP noted.

Significantly, the government's list of frontline workers mentioned in the December 28, 2020 guidelines did not include aviation sector employees but armed forces personnel, prison staff and municipal workers among others.

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

MoCA's requests on priority vaccination

Right after the Covid vaccination drive was set in motion in India in January this year, the then Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola wrote to his counterpart in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) Rajesh Bhushan that airlines and airports had approached the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) with the plea that they should be vaccinated on a priority basis after the healthcare workers. 

An Air India plane carries Covaxin boxes to Kolkata. Image courtesy: Twitter/@aaikolairport

"Considering that the frontline workers of airlines and airports are also involved in the movement of vaccines, this MoCA recognises the merit in the proposal and requests the MoHFW to include frontline workers of airlines and airports along with frontline workers mentioned in the operational guidelines released on December 28, 2020," Kharola said.

"You will agree with me that the crew, engineers, technicians, ground staff, frontline workers in aviation have certain risk elements while performing their duties most diligently and make air transportation a safe mode of transport," Kharola added, according to a PTI report. 

Civil Aviation Secretary TK Pandey had written to the state governments on April 27 to consider personnel involved in aviation and related services for vaccination on priority. However, the states are taking time to react, and as a result, the airlines have started to formulate plans themselves and contact hospitals for inoculating their staff against the coronavirus.

Aviation unions get active

The FIP, and the Air India unions Indian Commercial Pilots' Association (ICPA), Indian Pilots' Guild (IPG) and Air India Cabin Crew Association (AICCA) had taken up the issue in a big way. 

The IPG raised concerns over the lack of vaccination for the aircrew through its representation to the Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on April 16 and to the Air India Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) Rajiv Bansal on April 28. 

Also read: Air India's Covid braveheart dies fighting with legacy firmly in place

In those two representations, the IPG raised some very important points. It pointed out that competitor airlines in the Gulf (Emirates and Etihad) had started to vaccinate their staff as early as December 2020 and boast of having "fully vaccinated frontline teams across all touchpoints" since February 2021. In the same month, another global giant Singapore Airlines commenced international flights with a fully vaccinated aircrew. 

The IPG complained that operating with unvaccinated aircrew would put Indian airlines at a considerable disadvantage as the health-conscious customers may veer towards competitor airlines. The union also referred to the joint statement by the heads of global bodies like International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), International Labour Organisation (ILO), International Maritime Organisation (IMO), International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and World Health Organisation (WHO) calling on all UN member states to prioritise aircrew and seafarers in their national Covid vaccination programmes to ensure their safe movement across borders. The IPG also underlined the need to make the aircrew ready if vaccination passports become necessary for unrestricted travel in the future. 

Aviation staff the 'weak link'

The union attracted the minister's attention to the fact that while the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel working at the airports have been largely vaccinated, the aviation staff have been left out, making them the "weak link" in the chain. This becomes all the more galling when one considers that the employees of Railways and other public transport agencies had received vaccines as well. 

The Maharashtra government had also defined aviation and related services as 'essential'. The IPG added that vaccinated aircrew would stand as natural barriers against new strains of the virus. 

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

The IPG assured that vaccinating aircrew would not strain the government much. Considering that one vial contains 10 doses of the vaccine, it would require a mere 200 vials to completely inoculate all the pilots of Air India and a few hundred more to vaccinate the entire aircrew, the union said. Indeed, even if all the aviation employees working in India are taken into account, the government should not find any difficulty in allocating its resources. 

IndiGo transports oxygen concentrators from Delhi to Leh. Image courtesy: Twitter/@IndiGo6E

In this regard, the FIP pointed out that even other countries have recognised aviation workers as providing essential service. For example, the US Department of Homeland Security has designated aviation workers "essential to maintaining our nation's critical infrastructure". An "active and efficient air transportation network becomes essential to fight back against the virus and return to normalcy", the FIP noted.          

"Despite the second wave choking the nation's medical resources, not a single pilot has refused any flight citing the risk of infection as a reason," the IPG wrote to the Air India CMD. "...aircrew do not have the luxury of working from home. When we transport passengers and cargo, be it for trade and economy, or humanitarian missions and life-saving equipment, it is in the nature of our duty to be at risk of exposure of the virus. At the very least our company should leave no stone unturned to keep us safe... we are the only group of essential workers left to fend for ourselves."

Battered and bruised by the pandemic

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.

The ICPA sounded an ultimatum to the Air India management: "If Air India fails to set up vaccination camps on a pan-Indian basis for the flying crew above the age of 18 years on priority, we will stop work." The AICCA had earlier raised several significant shortfalls regarding the coverage of crew while on VBM flights.

Covid vaccine delivery via Go First. Image courtesy: Twitter/@goairlinesindia

The FIP, through its representations to MoHFW Secretary Rajesh Bhushan (April 8) and Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba (May 1), called for priority vaccination for commercial pilots. "Exclusion of mission-critical aviation personnel from the category of frontline workers, compounded with the lack of mandatory testing exposes a huge gap in our national effort to combat the disease," FIP noted. It added that asymptomatic aviators may inadvertently become superspreaders owing to their constant global movement during the deadly second wave of the pandemic. 

The MoCA issued guidelines on May 6 for the vaccination 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. However, by that time, the aviation staff had already been exposed to the virus for about four months.   

These MoCA guidelines were a result of the ministry's acknowledgement that "during the surge of Covid-19, the aviation community has risen to the occasion to provide unhindered services for the movement of people in need and the essential cargo (critical medical cargo like vaccines, medicines, oxygen concentrators, etc)."

Also read: Govt drags feet on Covid jabs for aviation staff, airlines make own arrangements

The loss of five Air India pilots in a month in May nearly caused the national carrier to push the panic button. The friends and family members of the deceased pilots are unanimous in their belief that timely vaccination could have saved precious lives. The FIP petition mentioned the names of numerous other pilots across airlines who had succumbed to the coronavirus. 

By the time airlines finally started to vaccinate their employees, a lot of precious time had been wasted. Air India, for example, pledged to vaccinate their entire staff by May-end, but after two vaccination camps were cancelled due to vaccine shortage, Air India's plans seemed to have hit rough weather, according to a Live Mint report.  

Inadequate social security

Another issue of concern has been the lack of a proper social security net for the aircrew in case of death or loss of flying licence or temporary downgrading of licence status as a result of contracting the virus. 

The IPG raised the issue after the demise of one of their captains Amitesh Prasad on May 9. The union lamented that the only measure that the company had pledged to take to compensate the next of kin of the deceased employees involves an "ad-hoc payment". 

According to the staff notice dated July 17, 2020, the family/legal heir of a permanent employee is to be paid Rs 10 lakh in case of the employee's death during the period of the pandemic. The policy was to be in force initially from April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021, and subject to review thereafter. The corresponding compensation amount payable to the families of fixed-term contract employees engaged directly by the company was decided to be Rs 5 lakh and casual employees, who have worked for a minimum continuous period of one year, were to be paid Rs 90,000.

This compensation policy did not apply to employees engaged through a contractor/service provider, though they are to be paid an amount equivalent to gross emoluments of two months' salary drawn by them on the condition that they have worked for a minimum continuous period of a year. 

Other than this, the company doesn't have any policy or welfare fund or benevolent scheme, a senior pilot, who requested to be anonymous, told Plane Vanilla. "You can't just be paying a Rs 10 lakh payout. We are not even earning half of what we used to earn. Pre-Covid, a pilot used to take home about Rs 5 lakh a month. You can't just give two months of pay. So we are expecting and we are hoping for better. We are expecting our company to do better for us," he observed.

The IPG provided other examples of how the next of kin of deceased employees are cared for in the government, public sector undertakings (PSUs) and private airline sectors.

The IPG also mentioned the Centre's 'Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package Insurance Scheme for Health Workers Fighting Covid-19', the Delhi government's policy of paying Rs 1 crore ex-gratia to any government or private sector employee who contracts the coronavirus and subsequently dies during the discharge of Covid-19 duty, and the Maharashtra government's announcement to pay Rs 50 lakh ex-gratia to its employees and then extending it to cover police personnel and teachers as well. 

Taken for granted for too long

"Until how long will our service to the nation be taken for granted considering the pay cut and the lack of recognition of our contribution throughout the pandemic?" the IPG asked. "We were surprised to learn that a well respected Indian private airline runs a benevolent scheme with its employees where it covers a deceased pilot to the sum of Rs 5,00,00,000 (Rs 5 crore) in case of death. Why can’t the flag carrier create and provide something similar?" the IPG said.

Also read: Air India's Covid hero who died fighting for India gets emotional farewell

The FIP mentioned in its petition that central, state and local self-governing bodies have provided employees with group insurance ranging from Rs 50 lakh to Rs 2 crore. The pilot body added that an airline like Air India has been mum on either the enhanced insurance package or if normal air accident flight insurance cover of $1,30,000 applied to the special/charter/non-scheduled VBM flights. 

An Air India aircraft brings Indian vaccines to Bangladesh. Image courtesy: Image courtesy: Twitter/@DrSJaishankar

Having a proper social security net also involves gainful employment to the kin of deceased aircrew members as a matter of compassion.  

In June last year, Air India's ground-handling subsidiary Air India Airport Services Limited (AIASL) announced that it would provide suitable employment to a family member of employees dying due to Covid, irrespective of whether the employee was from AIASL, Air India or its subsidiaries, PTI reported. Apart from AIASL, the other subsidiaries of Air India are Air India Express, Alliance Air, Air India Engineering Services Limited (AIESL) and AISATS. The notice came on the day an Air India pilot, who had retired a few months back, passed away due to Covid. The FIP petition said that it is not quite apparent if this alternate employment scheme continues to apply today as well and in which form. 

The pilot body also mentioned the issue of the massive Covid-induced pay cuts that the aviation staff have had to suffer despite rendering selfless service while undergoing numerous Covid tests, quarantine and deaths. It, however, reiterated that the pilots take immense pride in being involved in the national duty of evacuating and relocating stranded people and carrying medical supplies across the globe.  

The FIP petition sounded an alarm that pilots operating VBM flights run the risk of losing their flying licence, ending up as being permanently or temporarily medically unfit as a result of Covid-related secondary pulmonary and other hitherto unknown complications and causes, which are referred to as Long Covid.

Black fungus and white fungus

The pilot body, in this regard, mentioned the threats of black fungus and white fungus infections that are rapidly on the rise in the country and which are known to cause a mortality rate of 50% as compared to 2-3% mortality for Covid itself. It also noted that the fungus may cause vital organs like eyes to be surgically removed.

The petition also pointed towards the country reporting more than four lakh daily new cases of Covid not too long ago and also the vast underreporting of cases in India. It drew attention to the US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation's (IHME) grim prediction that India would have a death rate of almost 10 lakh by August 2021. 

Air India carries Indian vaccines to the Maldives. Image courtesy: Twitter/@abdulla_shahid

The FIP emphasised that it is mandatory for pilots carrying passengers to be both physically and mentally fit, but the current spate of death and destruction and reports of their colleagues dying is causing tremendous mental trauma and stress for the pilots. While no amount of money can compensate for the loss of human life, an adequate social security net would help in lowering the anxiety of the pilots and it is the duty of the government to secure the future of the families of pilots who are wholeheartedly responding to the call of national duty and in the process exposing themselves to the deadliest pathogens ever known to mankind.

The Centre and various state governments have taken several steps for the welfare of frontline workers, including healthcare workers. These measures have been in the form of insurance cover, compensation in the case of death, pension, etc. However, the aviation employees have been deprived of similar benefits, the FIP lamented. It complained that this was a "blatant violation of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India". 

Compensation amounts ought to be revised

Importantly, the FIP also urged that pending the hearing and final disposal of its petition, the government may be directed to immediately grant an ex-gratia payment of Rs 10 crore to the families of pilots who had died due to Covid, from the time of the outbreak of the disease on January 27, 2020, till date. The FIP based its plea on the "extremely risky nature of the pilot profession, possession of a high degree of skill sets, cost of the airplanes that the pilots fly, the responsibilities that pilots shoulder and the general average emoluments of the pilots".

The petition called for Rs 20 crore as compensation in case of death due to Covid or associated complications, Rs 12.5 crore in the case of permanent medical unfitness, and Rs 12.5 lakh per month in the case of temporary medical unfitness till the reversion of the medical status to 'fit for flight duties' or cessation of the insurance scheme, whichever is later. The pilot body calculated the total premium payable annually by the government for the term life insurance coverage of 2,000 pilots to be Rs 600 crore. 

Neglected despite rendering selfless service

The FIP observed that air transportation workers, and in particular, core warriors, or the pilots, have resolutely taken part in the government's missions like VBM, air bubble arrangements and lifted life-saving drugs and other medical equipment from across the globe, running the risk of being infected by the coronavirus and, as a result, dying, or losing flying licences due to permanent disability arising out of Covid and other diseases (like mucormycosis, caused by black fungus), or temporary disability due to Long Covid. 

The petition mentioned the stellar role played by Air India in the past, for example, the evacuation of  1.7 lakh stranded Indians from Kuwait in 1990 before the start of the Gulf War, making it a part of the Guinness Book of World Records in the process, and also flying to the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan in China last year. In the early part of last year, apart from China, Air India aircrew also flew to one of the worst Covid hotspots of that time, Italy, to rescue stranded people. Air India also evacuated people from a quarantined ship off the coast of Japan and carried evacuees from Iran to quarantine facilities in India.

The petition also mentioned pilots flying in life-saving medical supplies like ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) kits from China and elsewhere during the first wave of the Covid and oxygen concentrators and other medical equipment during the current second wave. 

Airlines in India led by Air India had carried medical and essential items to the remotest parts of India after the nationwide lockdown was declared in March last year. They have also transported vaccines across India and also taken them abroad.     

Air India had also anchored successful evacuation exercises in 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) before the mega VBM came about. From May last year to June 8, 2021, the Air India group had already carried 34,91,752 passengers on 26,472 flights under the VBM. 

An aviation old-timer told Plane Vanilla that when in April last year, airlines started flying medicines, PPE kits and other essential supplies to the remotest corners of India, pilots didn't have PPE kits themselves.

Passengers boarding a VBM flight from Tokyo in Japan. Image courtesy: Twitter/@HardeepSPuri

"It has not been a very good period for pilots. They are constantly exposed," he said and explained that the passengers are subjected to that exposure let's say, once in months, while the aircrew members go through the ordeal two-three times a day.   

"There is a constant in and out. Besides we are on the plane for so many hours. A long-haul flight takes let's say 14 hours. It just takes one person somewhere down the line to have some disease and it travels. However well-masked you may be, you would have to take your mask off to have a glass of water, have tea, or have a meal. Prevention is there. We are extremely careful, everyone tries their level best," he added. 

All major airlines have answered the government's clarion call in this fight against the pandemic and pilots rostered for duty have had to report without any individual choice of refusal. The aviation staff have gained all-round applause for their service during these trying times, acting as the backbone of India's Covid response. However, the government has tended to be happy to extract maximum service out of the aviation personnel while providing them hardly any facilities in return.   

In their efforts to save people and reconnect families, the aviation staff are seeing their own families being broken apart. The FIP petition reiterated that if the reliefs as claimed are not granted, "grave prejudice" will be caused to the aviation staff. 

Harsh criticism by the Supreme Court had forced the Indian government to revise its vaccination policy a few days back. Will the Bombay High Court come to the rescue of the aggrieved aviation staff in India? Let's wait and see.