“We parked the plane in Delhi, turned off the engines, turned on our phones, and the man sitting next to me said, ‘Oh my god, the flourish died,'” said the pilot, who requested anonymity. for fear of losing his job. “I remember hearing this as I fell to the floor… I couldn’t get out of the seat for a few minutes.”
It also dealt a severe blow to the country’s aviation industry. Pilots and air crew played a key role in India’s efforts to contain the outbreak – but faced huge pay cuts and were denied vaccine priority. Several people contracted Covid and over a dozen died.
In a letter to the government in early April, the Federation of Indian Pilots, a national organization of more than 5,000 pilots in several airlines, said, “Most of our allies in the biohazard frontline face unconditional danger every day.”
On 8 June, the federation filed a petition in the Mumbai High Court requesting more insurance benefits and compensation for pilots and bereaved families.
“The pilots, cabin crew and other airline staff are working tirelessly in the time of pandemic and have served the nation,” the petition said. “Therefore, it is necessary to take steps to alleviate their sufferings.”
‘Huge’ pay cut
In the first and second waves, the government scrambled to evacuate stranded citizens and deliver vital supplies to hard-to-reach places – measures that the country’s pilots relied heavily on.
Several airlines were involved in repatriation flights during the first wave of stringent nationwide lockdowns in April last year. The efforts were led by the government-owned national flag carrier Air India; Private airlines later also offered commercial repatriation flights, with fares capped by the government.
“Any pilot rostered for duty on such flights had to report for duty without any personal option of refusal in the matter,” the plea said.
The commercial pilot said he and his colleagues could decide not to work on those flights – but that meant no pay in a time of huge economic turmoil and uncertainty. Like many employees in difficult areas of India, working during the pandemic was not like working at all.
“We didn’t know what the salary would be when our next pay would come,” Pilot said. He used to be paid monthly – but during the pandemic, his company switched to paying pilots per flight. The reduction in travel meant that pilots were earning “at least 50%, if not less, of our regular take-home pay,” he said.
The statement sparked outrage from pilots’ unions, which said in a counter-statement that the airline was “dispelling misleading half-truths about our salaries and the current market landscape.”
CNN contacted Air India and the civil aviation ministry, but both declined to comment.
Around 2,000 Air India personnel participated in repatriation flights to more than two dozen countries. A sixth of them have since tested positive for the coronavirus, and over 500 had to be hospitalised, the federation said, citing the aviation minister.
During the second wave, pilots helped fly in vital supplies such as oxygen concentrators and medicine from overseas. The federation said that 13 pilots have died from Kovid since February this year.
The commercial pilot said he had not contracted the virus, but that while he and his colleagues took every possible precaution, there are “multiple points of risk,” especially on the long-haul flights they fly, usually 16 It went on for hours. “There’s only so much one can do,” he said.
fly without vaccine
Throughout it all, pilots were denied access to an important part of safety: vaccinations.
India’s vaccination rollout began in January, with priority given to medical and frontline workers. Some transport workers, including railway workers, were classified as frontline workers – but not pilots or air crew.
“We didn’t want to make too much noise as we left it to the best decision of the government and the country,” the commercial pilot said. “But then the vaccine was made more and more available to the youth categories, but still we were not being given priority. And people started testing positive at an alarming rate.”
In its April letter, the federation urged the government to reclassify pilots for vaccination priority, arguing their vulnerability “highlights a huge gap in our national effort to combat the disease.”
The boycott of the pilots “undermines the tremendous risks posed by our members and reflects the indifference to the lives of pilots and their families,” the federation said.
But pilots weren’t able to get the vaccine until May, when the government opened up vaccination to everyone over the age of 18. Even then, it was difficult – with people scrambling for vaccines across the country, vaccine centers reported severe shortages, and many had to temporarily close doors or turn away people while they waited for more supplies.
In the past month, the vaccine chaos has started to calm down, with cases in India going down and vaccination rates going back up. But deaths have lagged behind infections, meaning that even after daily new infections began to decline, the number of Covid deaths continued to rise for weeks.
The federation argued that the threat to Hawaii workers’ jobs in case of death or disability meant “they need a favorable Social Security coverage for their families”. It pointed to Air India as an example, saying the airline provided only “a meager” 1 million rupees ($13,700) in compensation to the families of crew who died of Covid.
“No amount of monetary compensation can possibly serve as a replacement for priceless human lives,” the petition said, “but it is the duty of the government to look after the families of pilots” without endangering their personal safety, the world. Fly across and deal with the deadliest pathogens ever known to mankind in a bargain,” the federation said.
The commercial pilot said that if called upon, he would probably still fly – but now with more apprehension, and with concern for himself and his family’s future. Before the second wave, he felt the outbreak was under control – but the past few months have ignited a sense of security.
“I have seen my loved ones cry on video calls, on news, even on private phone calls,” he said. “It’s just heartbreaking, and I would never want it for my wife or kids.”