New Delhi: Ferrying emergency cargo or bringing back stranded Indians from across the world, pilots have been at the forefront of India’s fight against Covid-19. But they have also been at the receiving end of severe distress — last year, resident welfare associations were ostracising them, and this year a delayed vaccination has hit them hard.
In May, at least 14 pilots from Air India, IndiGo and Vistara died of Covid, according to details shared by the companies.
The national carrier lost five pilots — Harsh Tiwary, G.P.S. Gill, Prasad Karmakar, Sandeep Rana and Amitesh Prasad. All five operated Vande Bharat flights — India’s repatriation mission that has facilitated the travel of more than 89.2 lakh people till now.
The Tata-owned Vistara lost two pilots, while IndiGo was the worst hit with seven deaths.
Speaking to ThePrint, several pilots from Air India and IndiGo highlighted that the deaths occurred as the vaccination drive was delayed, beginning only in May even as pilots from several international carriers got inoculated as early as last year.
Some pilots also noted the absence of support by the airlines as the second wave was raging in the country. They also pointed to assembly elections and Kumbh Mela in April and May, saying these events should not have been held.
An Air India spokesperson said vaccinations have begun now and are going on in “full swing”. But, the figures weren’t made available.
According to an IndiGo spokesperson, the company has inoculated 20,000 of its total 35,000 employees with the first dose and aims to cover the entire workforce by mid-June “subject to availability of vaccines”.
Several other airlines are also in the middle of the drive, and claimed that they are trying to safeguard the staff and their families.
‘Left to fend for ourselves’
Noting their contribution to the Vande Bharat mission, an Air India pilot who has been flying for over two decades said the pilots were left to fend for themselves in the second Covid wave that unfolded over April and May.
According to him, there were just no hospital beds or oxygen, so even the airline could not help. “We were all running from pillar to post. Many pilots were hospitalised with quite a few in the ICU as well. We all had to fend for ourselves,” he said.
Another senior pilot with Air India said any responsible management would have started the vaccination process way earlier.
“This is ridiculous. Pilots at Etihad and Qatar Airlines got vaccinated last year itself. We only got vaccinated on 16 May, after four deaths had already taken place. These could have been avoided if they were vaccinated on time,” he explained.
The issue, according to the first pilot quoted above, is that “everything gets caught up in a bureaucratic mess in this company”. “They issue circulars that say a lot but don’t do anything,” he said.
Both pilots agreed that the national carrier needed to be more proactive.
They also pointed to the hot button political issues of holding elections and Kumbh Mela, which have been blamed for the intensity of the second wave.
“You cannot be having an election rally or a Kumbh Mela in the middle of a pandemic. Even a blind person can see that,” the second pilot said.
Two IndiGo pilots, who also didn’t wish to be named, said while they were worried about their safety, it was part of the job.
“I have been taking all safety precautions and am being extremely careful but one still gets scared. I live with my parents so I have to be extra careful,” said one of them.
The second pilot said while he would be scared from time to time, he was more focused on his job. “I only got vaccinated recently, before that I was getting a bit anxious. Now I feel much better.”
Vaccination began in May
Airlines in India began vaccinating their employees only as recently as a month ago. The move came after Air India pilots threatened to stop flying without vaccination.
In a letter on 4 May, the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA), a union of Air India pilots, wrote to the airline’s management: “With no health care support to the flying crew, no insurance, and a massive opportunistic pay cut, we are in no position to continue risking the lives of our pilots without vaccination. Our finances are already spread thin covering our bedridden colleagues and provisioning for families…”
However, the national carrier’s drive was met with several hurdles owing to vaccine shortage that resulted in three camps being cancelled and the drive being delayed by 10 days.
An airline spokesperson told ThePrint: “A vaccination drive has been going on in full swing for our eligible employees ever since India rolled out its vaccination programme with camps being held regularly at Delhi and all over the network.”
Air India has also been providing support with medicines, oxygen cylinders, hospital beds and ICU facilities, the spokesperson said.
Each family of the diseased pilot will be receiving Rs 10 lakh. In comparison, IndiGo has offered Rs 5 crore to the families of the deceased pilots as part of the airline’s “robust” welfare scheme.
Meanwhile, Vistara and AirAsia have vaccinated 99 and 96 per cent of their employees, respectively.
“This comprises the airline’s airport staff, cabin crew, pilots and corporate staff who have received at least their first dose ensuring safety and well-being of the employees as well as customers,” a Vistara spokesperson said.
SpiceJet announced an inoculation drive for all its employees from 17 May onwards.
SpiceJet managing director Ajay Singh said in a statement: “Vaccination is a key step towards fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and it’s important that essential workers like airline employees are vaccinated on priority. We will ensure that each and every member of the SpiceJet family gets vaccinated as quickly as possible and have drawn up a detailed schedule for this company-sponsored initiative which would be undertaken as per government rules and guidelines.”
Other measures sought and implemented
Vistara also claimed to be treating the employees’ well-being as priority.
It has launched several initiatives that aim to provide support with “home hospitalization, availability of critical resources like medicines and oxygen support, Covid-19 testing, doctor consultations for timely medical care and if needed, cabs as a makeshift ambulance for employees/their families”.
The ICPA has made similar demands to include family members in the Covid vaccination drive. “With this backdrop, we need support from the company to keep performing our duties and keep our families safe,” said a letter by the union to Air India management, dated 1 June.
On 13 May, IndiGo announced a slew of measures besides vaccinating all employees — such as a dedicated Covid care centre, central and regional task forces “to establish, monitor and review response strategies and create programs to support its people”, and tie-ups with hotels for quarantine facilities.
“Our people are at the heart of all that we do. The safety and well-being of our people and their families is not only paramount, but it is a sense of duty for all of us at IndiGo to be there for them — physically, financially, and emotionally,” Raj Raghavan, senior vice president and head of human resources at IndiGo, said in a statement.
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