Having known many pilots and writing about aviation since 1996, I have closely tracked the low-fare airline revolution in India and watched its fallouts and repercussions across segments.
In 2018, I chronicled the day in the life of a low-fare airline pilot after speaking to many commanders and co-pilots to understand what their jobs entailed daily. And the picture was grim. Pilots were struggling with burnout and monotony as airlines tried to cope with growing demands without adding pilots to their payrolls. A low-fare airline commander and crew’s life in India was not one to be envied.
Over the years, things have progressively worsened as the aviation sector has grown and pressure on airlines to improve their bottom lines to stay afloat has mounted. Pilots and commanders of erstwhile Air India, Indian Airlines and Jet led a life of relative leisure, some would say were highly pampered and mollycoddled in comparison to those who entered the industry post-2004.
The pandemic took a significant toll on humanity and like many other professions, several in the aviation sector — commanders, co-pilots and cabin crew — were either laid off or took sharp pay cuts as airlines globally struggled to keep their head above water. Many airline crew in India contracted and lost their lives to the virus while others suffered the stress of financial setbacks because of dwindled-down incomes. Aviation industry sources in India witnessed numerous instances where those living beyond their means or lavish lives were forced to pare down. Many struggled to pay off loans and make ends meet.
As things limped back to normalcy, some of the financial stress lifted in 2022 and 2023. Yet in some ways, the work-life balance especially for a low-fare airline pilot appears to have worsened. Last week, the news of two Indian pilots — one with IndiGo and one former SpiceJet commander who was with Qatar — dying on duty made headlines and created a buzz on social media. Several news reports identified poor health due to overwork, accumulated fatigue and stress, faced by many in the sector, as reasons for the untimely deaths.
DGCA, Airlines In Cahoots
Pilots, crew and even airline management said that the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has turned a blind eye to the worsening work conditions for pilots and crew, and allows airline operators to push them to their limits.
The allegation is that the DGCA is far more driven by the “commercial considerations of airlines than by safety considerations of passengers”. Pilots said that the flight timing duty limits are “pushed to the limit” and the DGCA does not intervene as it should. As a senior IndiGo commander said, “It’s like being put on a treadmill in the gym, asked to achieve your peak heart rate and then stay there indefinitely.”
Moreover, while the actual flying time is far lower, commanders and crew said that their duty timings have been getting longer and longer as they waited around at airports and lounges for the next leg of the journey. This, they argue, is a double whammy as they do not earn for non-flying time, yet end up spending many more hours on duty. In addition, the rosters require the pilots to do several very early morning and red-eye or night flights on several consecutive days and this adds to their stress. “Rosters are often led or influenced by who you know and how well in the airline’s management pilot team. Contacts among those who design the rosters,” said a SpiceJet commander. He said he had chosen to stay with his airline because it was flying less and therefore his work-life balance was better. He said at 51 years of age he could no longer manage what he could when he was 28 years old.
Last week’s incidents with two pilots — one 40 and the other in his early 50s — has also brought into focus “cumulative fatigue”, which pilots said had been building especially in airlines like IndiGo that have more flights across segments. “Crew are getting flogged and the physical fatigue clubbed with the other stresses of life are beginning to show, This aspect needs to be assessed over a six-month period not a few weeks,” argued a senior Air India commander.
How Pilots Cope With Hectic Schedules
Even while this article was being written, a WhatsApp message from a pilot showed a 156-hour duty timing roster, of which 94 hours was the flying time (70 hours of flying plus 24 hours of overtime). The commander in question had written to the airline saying that he did not wish to exceed his regular duty hours and didn’t want to do any overtime as “this kind of flying is beyond my capacity”. The roster included four early morning and six “window of circadian low” (WOCL) flights, which are between 2 am and 6 am, a time of day when the mind and body are at their lowest functioning capacity.
To make their lives easier, some commanders opt for a contract where they are allowed to take a full week off every month. A commander who has spent 12 years working with IndiGo, six as co-pilot and six as captain, said that he had opted for this as “ultimately the pilot chooses his lifestyle”. He said stayed away from the “rat race” for promotions and didn’t accept very stressful training. In addition, he stays on top of his daily routine and life: working out, getting uninterrupted sleep and in general, leading a more disciplined and healthy life, all of which helped him “retain his sanity”.
But what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for all. “I did not opt for this as the roster is designed such that one does a late arrival before the seven days off and a very early morning departure on the first day after the time off is over. Effectively, it often works out to just five days off,” said an IndiGo senior captain who has 20 years of flying experience with three other airlines including Kingfisher. He finds the work-life balance he needs almost impossible to negotiate at his present job.
Greed, Needs And Human Nature
Government sources said that the work-life balance problem was not new and had been an issue for years. “The younger cohorts are driven by their earnings at this stage and they seek to maximise their flying times and this leads to a sort of divide between the newer commanders and the older ones”, said a former DGCA. He argued that there was a thin line between need and greed and that often after a “decent increment by the airline, all fatigue complaints vanish”. Government sources point out that many Indian pilots left Indian carriers and opted for airlines like Qatar, which are notorious for their punishing schedules and rosters. If things are as bad as they claim, would they choose worse options?
Individual instances like the death of the two pilots on duty cannot be assumed as the norm since the reasons could be quite extraneous to their work life. “In general, there has been a spurt in cardiac arrests and related problems post-pandemic and therefore it is not possible to make any generalizations,” said a source from the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MOCA). However, he said that the DGCA had been internally examining this matter ever since the first incident involving the ex-SpiceJet commander who was with Qatar came to light. Discussions between the DGCA and the operators were currently on. A CAPA India study done in August 2023 has found that “At a macro level, in terms of a crew’s maximum flight time hours and maximum cumulative duty period, India is on a par with the requirements of the regulators of other major aviation markets as well as EU’s aviation body EASA. An in-depth assessment is required to understand variations in other key aspects and nuances”. Although Indian airlines stay within what is legally permissible, a thorough relook at what is physically advisable is required.
Nature Of The Beast
Former Air India and Indian Airlines management insiders and captains recall a time when flying was a luxury and making it to commander in these airlines was a matter of prestige. Remuneration and perks of the job were enviable back then and the glamour attached to the job was significant. Many commanders back then had a true and abiding interest in both aviation and aircraft.
But over the last two decades, the job has lost its sheen and commanders were often referred to as “glorified taxi drivers” and the attitude towards them, both within the airlines and the public reflected this.
Further, unlike in the past, the profession no longer was seen as attractive financially since many senior commanders now see their peers earning multiples of what they are, sometimes in the same airline in management positions. “These comparisons often come in and many commanders feel they might have had a better deal if they had joined even their own airline’s management, many of whom earn salary packages ten times theirs, especially with stock options!” said a former Jet CFO. This, he felt, had made the relationship between the two increasingly hostile in recent times. Commanders and crew in some ways feel excluded from the overall performance of the airline, which those with stock options don’t.
Earning less is one aspect but the nature of the jobs takes a bigger physical toll too. Many low-fare airline pilots and crew do four take-offs and landings in a single duty and this can be tough on the body over a long period. “We as passengers find it tough and quite tiring if one takes a flight with a couple of stop-overs even without a change in aircraft. You can imagine what the crew goes through if they have to do three or four sectors in a single day”, argued a former secretary of MOCA. Nonetheless, he added, that nobody could dispute the physically taxing nature of the job.
Many IndiGo senior commanders said that no matter what the airline paid its crew — an increment is expected in October and pilots said they will reject anything that is less than 15-20% — the unhappiness and discontent that seems to have set in will not abate. “It’s the nature of the business, which is like a beast,” said one management pilot. He said that many crew members want the airline to induct wide bodies as that would change the nature of their jobs and flying rosters. The airline has been losing some of its old and loyal commanders to carriers in the Middle East who have recently started rehiring precisely for this reason: they prefer making the move to wide-body aircraft and longer haul flying as it offers better work-life balance and in many cases better remuneration and perks too, even if it means leaving their home country in the bargain.
Is an overtired, stressed and/or bored commander in the cockpit a safety hazard? There are no easy answers to this question, but it has sparked widespread global concern about the mental health of pilots. This was after a GermanWings co-pilot deliberately crashed a jet in 2015, killing everyone on board.
Aviation industry sources said that the situation in India was “already at alarming levels” with many pilots being declared unfit, some of whom have been temporarily or even permanently removed from duty by the carriers concerned. Whether this was a result of overwork or a general neglect of their physical state is not known. Government sources added that while a physical examination is far more doable, gleaning the mental state was trickier and an even bigger worry. The assumption that everyone values their own life has now been proved a fallacy post the GermanWings tragedy.
“In general, the physical state of any members manning the cockpit is non-negotiable but since there are two people at any point and the chances of both facing a health problem simultaneously are almost nil, I would say that this is not a grave safety hazard as such”, said a former DGCA. Having said that, he added, that the health of those who are directly responsible for so many lives was a matter of great importance to all concerned, the airline above all, since a mishap and especially a crash could often mean the ruin and even end of the carrier.
United We Stand
This is the situation in a market where the demand for experienced commanders — after the two-year lull — is exploding. Many senior Indian commanders, who wanted to switch to wide bodies and better pay and working conditions and who were not limited by location, have been leaving India to join carriers like Emirates, FlyDubai, Qatar and others.
With Air India on a hiring spree, IndiGo expanding like there’s no tomorrow and new airlines like Akasa struggling to find and retain talent, especially commanders, the market situation has changed dramatically. Even as this article went to press, news reports appeared on sparring between Akasa and Air India Express over poaching of pilots. “Travel demand is up and I see no reprieve in sight,” said Shakti Lumba, an industry veteran who has more recently taken the step of setting up The Professional Pilots of India’s Airlines, a new union to help them unite and fight for their causes. The existing All India Pilots Association (ALPA) headed by ex-Jet commander Sam Thomas will merge with it. Erstwhile Air India has its own unions but all the private airlines have actively discouraged any unionisation from the very start. However, Jet pilots, after some resistance from the airline, eventually did form one.
It remains to be seen how many low-fare airline pilots including IndiGo’s — which as the market leader sets the tone — bite this bullet and find the courage to join the union to take on cudgels on their behalf. As the saying goes, when spiders unite, they can tie down a lion.