July 13, 2024

Air India Pilots Allege Safety Risks

NEW DELHI — Air India, India’s unprofitable national carrier, is using “coercion and fear” to compel pilots to fly long hours and while ill, an Indian pilots’ union claims.

The Indian Pilots’ Guild, the union that represents Air India’s international pilots, made the claim in a June 14 letter to Star Alliance, a network of 27 airlines. Air India is in the final stages of joining the alliance.

The letter is the latest salvo in a feud between Air India’s management and its 1,600 pilots. Short of cash, Air India has delayed paying salaries and other compensation to pilots and tens of thousands of other employees. It has also missed payments to vendors, including fuel and ground transportation suppliers.

“There are serious points relating to the passenger and air safety that need to be addressed by Air India,” the letter said. Among other things, it said, “rules and regulations meant to reduce pilot fatigue and the probability of human error related to accidents are routinely being flouted by Air India.”

Flight crews are being pushed to work even when ill, because of stiff penalties and strict disciplinary action for taking sick leave, guild members wrote. It is “highly likely that several contagious diseases could spread within the aircraft from ill and infected flight crew,” the letter said.

Pilots say Air India is engaging in unsafe practices, including changing schedules so often that some pilots refer to the company’s management style as “schedule by wake-up call.”

An Air India spokesman, Kamaljeet Rattan, did not respond to calls or e-mails for comment about the letter or the accusations. Air India has said in the past that pilot scheduling is not computerized, but has denied any safety problems.

A Star Alliance executive said the network had received the letter from the Air India pilots. He indicated that he thought it had more to do with a fight between management and unions than actual safety concerns.

Entry into Star Alliance, which would allow frequent fliers to claim air miles for using Air India, could add more than 10 percent to Air India’s revenue, the airline’s executives say. The airline lost more than $1 billion in the year that ended March 2010. It is 400 billion rupees ($8.9 billion) in debt, and is appealing to the government for more cash to continue operations this year.

Air India has significantly reduced fares in recent weeks to try to woo back customers after a pilots’ strike that led to hundreds of canceled flights this year.

Air safety in India has come under a spotlight in recent months. Passenger numbers grew faster than nearly anywhere else in the world in recent years, as a booming economy helped millions of people move from trains to airplanes. At the Paris Air Show last week, Indian carriers placed a third of all new jet orders, a total of $23 billion.

So far, however, government oversight of the industry and local training for pilots and safety personnel have lagged far behind the fast growth.

Hundreds of positions created in India’s central government to better police the industry remain unfilled, years after they were created. In March, India’s aviation regulatory agency said it had stripped a dozen commercial pilots of their licenses, after uncovering fraudulent training documents and favoritism.

Despite the lack of safety infrastructure, India has had only one major air crash in the past decade, the May 2010 crash of an Air India flight to Mangalore that killed nearly 160 people.

The aviation agency, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, says it is toughening flight safety rules. It said Monday that there would be no more exemptions of the kind that had allowed airlines to fly with fewer crew members than recommended because of employee shortages.

“These people must have the necessary personnel who are well trained in an emergency,” E. K. Bharat Bhushan, director general of the aviation agency, said in an interview.

The agency is also considering whether to increase training requirements for pilots and co-pilots, he said. “We felt that people could use more experience,” he said.

In June, three representatives from Star Alliance airlines visited Air India’s facilities for a week, checking training procedures, scheduling, maintenance and other operations. They did not find any serious safety violations or major problems that would endanger the safety of a flight, Jaan Albrecht, the Star Alliance chief executive, said in a telephone interview.

Air India has been having other problems, including a long-delayed reorganization, he said, but “regarding safety issues, we have the full satisfaction that the issues were examined, and we came up with a clean report.”

Officials from Star Alliance are scheduled to meet with the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation on July 4 to confirm that the government will honor commitments to allow Air India and other foreign airlines to work together.

Star Alliance executives are eager to sign up a second carrier in India, Mr. Albrecht said. “Now that Air India will probably become a member by the 31st of July, we need to formalize the second carrier,” he said. Star Alliance has not formalized any agreement with that airline, Jet Airways.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/29/business/global/29iht-pilot29.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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