Air India pilots and their crew members have been at the forefront of the Vande Bharat Mission during the COVID-19 lockdown. They have flown over 3020 Vande Bharat flights repatriating over 4 lakh Indians stranded across the world. Some 60 Air India pilots who flew Vande Bharat flights have tested positive for COVID-19.
BUT, instead of being rewarded for risking their lives in the line of duty, Air India pilots have had to deal with massive pay cuts of upto 60-70% since April 2020.
The Quint spoke to multiple Air India pilots on the condition of anonymity. They were hesitant to come on record as they feared being targeted by the Air India management for speaking up.
"What hurts the most is that the giant cut is only for those who work at the frontline (pilots and crew); whereas Air India officials who have never moved from behind their desks, have cleverly managed to hoodwink the system with a tiny 7% pay cut." - Air India Pilot
‘Hoping To Meet Aviation Minister’
On 1 August the Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association and Indian Pilots’ Guild wrote a letter to the Minister of Civil Aviation, Hardeep Singh Puri, requesting him to give them an opportunity to brief him on the issue.
In the letter, the pilots said,
We are hopeful that the government will not let down frontline workers and their families who stood by the nation through this pandemic while no other airline in the world was operating flights.
But so far the pilots have not been able to meet the Minister.
'Could Not Attend Dad’s Funeral'
Even before the lockdown, in January 2020, Air India flights were sent to the epicentre of the pandemic, Wuhan in China, to rescue 647 Indians.
At the time, PM Narendra Modi presented an appreciation letter to Air India pilots saying, “the grit, determination and compassion displayed by the rescue team only goes to prove that the true test of character lies in adversity”, said a pilot.
Several pilots set aside personal and family emergencies and stuck to their duty of operating Vande Bharat Mission flights.
One Air India pilot could not take part in his father's last rites, as he had tested COVID-19 positive.
"When I departed on my tour of duty for a Vande Bharat Mission flight, I never imagined that I would never see my dad again. Having tested COVID positive due to exposure on my flight, I had to bear the news of his sudden demise in complete isolation - at a government quarantine facility." - Air India Pilot
Pilots of some other major airlines, as well s Air India pilots, are given part of their salary as Fixed Flight Pay. This is calculated on basis of the number of hours/days they fly. COVID-19 rules have required most Air India pilots to spend several days in quarantine, 15 days each time. Many of them were often not declared ‘fit to fly’ even after quarantine. For the period they were grounded, they were not paid any Fixed Flight Pay.
One pilot that The Quint spoke to, was grounded for an entire month, and so, lost an entire month's Fixed Flight Pay.
"I was not paid for the time I spent recovering from COVID as I was grounded and not available for the company’s use." - Air India Pilot
In addition to not getting the Fixed Flight Pay for a whole month, this pilot also received just 40% salary due to the 60% pay cut. Even when this pilot tested COVID-19 positive while on duty, a pay cut was imposed, instead of assisting the pilot financially and emotionally.
‘Changed My Pilot Uniform In Car To Conceal My Identity From RWA’
Another pilot describes his fear of infecting his 80-year-old mother every time he flew the Vande Bharat flights.
"I am the sole bread winner of my family. Due to constant harassment from my Resident Welfare Association, I used to change my uniform shirt in the company transport on the way to and from the airport. All my neighbours see is a potential threat and treat my family as criminals who ought to be ostracised and locked up! I have constant fear of contracting COVID. Who will look after my mother if something happens to me? Or worse what if my mother dies because she gets infected from me?" - Air India pilot
Some pilots ended up infecting the whole family with COVID-19 and are still recovering.
"I landed back after a VBM (Vande Bharat Mission) flight, tested negative for COVID. After I reached home, I started to develop symptoms of high fever. By the time I had a second test to confirm my worst suspicions, I had already infected my asthmatic wife and both my young children. I am currently receiving supplemental oxygen to support my breathing, but I’m going to fight for my recovery." - Air India Pilot
The Air India pilots received their salary for April 2020 only in July, and that too, with a 60-70% pay cut. “All through the lockdown months we were not paid our wages but we persevered. We felt, as the frontline workers in the war against COVID-19, we would be taken care of once the immediate crisis is dealt with. But today, I feel abandoned and let down by the self serving top management executives that run my airline,” the pilot added.
‘How To Explain Social Distancing To A Child?’
Some pilots described the emotional trauma they dealt with on the job.
"After every flight, it was gut wrenching for me as a parent, to lock myself in self quarantine away from my little child. How does one explain social distancing to a kid?" - Air India Pilot
The cost of training courses to become a commercial airline pilot is very high, around Rs 1 crore. Many pilots take educational loans, and it takes them any years to pay back these loans. Some pilots told us that they would struggle to pay back their loans after the giant pay cut that they have been handed.
The Air India pilots are now pinning their hopes on meeting the Civil Aviation Minister to arrive at a solution.
The Quint has written to the Ministry of Civil Aviation for an update on th pay cut that Air India pilots are facing. We will update the article as and when we get a response.
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