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Pilots Say Aye, Airlines Nay To DGCA Guidelines On Flight Duty Timings

While the new guidelines will be favourable to commanders and crew members, they’re taking it with a pinch of salt.

By Anjuli Bhargava
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If India constituted an award for the most cynical set of employees in any industry, Indian pilots and crew would win hands down. In the past few months and for most of this year, the spotlight has been on them after a series of unexplained deaths were reported even among the young employees (age group 30-45) in the sector. The most recent was the death of a 37-year-old Air India commander on duty because of heart trouble.

The root cause of all these incidents remains unknown — it could be unhealthy lifestyles, after effects of Covid-19, or other undetected illnesses. Some even believe it could be related to Covid vaccines. The untimely deaths highlighted how pilots and crew suffer from excessive fatigue because of the nature of their job. This is also a safety issue as the commanders are responsible for the lives of hundreds of passengers while on duty. 

Debate On The New Guidelines

On November 8, the Director General for Civil Aviation (DGCA), India’s safety regulator issued a new set of draft rules and guidelines on flight duty timings to ensure that pilots get adequate rest. Even before the ink dried, the Air India incident happened. The theory that the cumulative fatigue and punishing rosters and flying schedules were to blame gained further credence. 

Earlier the death of two pilots — one 40 and the other in his early 50s — had brought the issue of  “cumulative fatigue” into sharper focus, which pilots said had been building especially in airlines like IndiGo that have more flights across segments. Many argue that the physical fatigue because of the work clubbed with the other stresses of life is beginning to show. 

Coincidentally, such incidents have been on the rise globally, especially after Covid. Whether the deaths have been on account of excessive fatigue and overwork is not clear to anyone. Since it could be one of the causes, aviation authorities worldwide have been taking a relook, including in India.

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Too Good To Be True? 

The latest draft guidelines crafted by the DGCA limit the rostering options of airlines by redefining the timings for late-night flying, ensuring better rest for crew and placing a far higher onus on airline operators to design rosters that minimise stress on commanders and crew members. Above all, the new guidelines require the airline’s head of operations to maintain and submit fatigue reports on each pilot every quarter and inform the authorities about actions taken. 

A senior IndiGo source told this writer that as he sees it, the new guidelines would be quite burdensome and a tough journey for operators. Industry sources expected the operators — who are still studying the new draft closely — to place their objections before the final word is heard on this matter. Adhering to the new guidelines will mean higher costs for the carriers translating to lower profitability. “It’s a tricky balance and a thin line between ensuring safety and health of the crew and allowing them to get complacent,” said an industry source.

Pilot responses and reactions to the new guidelines also reflect the low credibility of the DGCA in the aviation community. Pilots instantly reacted to these guidelines saying “these are too good to be true and will not pass muster”. Many argued that the guidelines were announced as “bait” by DGCA officials to attract the head of operations of each  airline to lobby with them and eventually bribe them in order to make the guidelines more amenable to the interests of the airline. While this remains to be seen,  senior DGCA sources said that they would not be making major amendments to the draft guidelines unless either side convinced them of the sound logic.  The DGCA has asked for comments on the draft from both sides.

Manipulated Rostering System

Rostering of pilots and crew has been and remains a very sensitive, and at least in the Indian carriers a complicated, matter with a lot of give and take involved by those in charge of finalising rosters. Before the system of automation came in, rosters were primarily led or influenced by who you knew and how well in the airline’s management pilot team. 

In 2004, now defunct private airline Jet Airways introduced an automated rostering system even as most other airlines in India manually fixed the pilot and crew rosters. This led to malpractices creeping in as individuals often misused this to their advantage. In the public sector-managed Air India, a rostering scam operated for several years, with rosters often being manipulated by those in charge to the advantage of a small set, ensuring the airline would get lower hours of flying from the pilots but would pay them for more. 

To move away from any scope for manual manipulation, several airlines have introduced automated rostering systems over the years. Pilots and crew across airlines argue that the automation without adequate thought has often made matters worse and much heartburn on this issue prevails. 

Other than automated rosters, pilots and crew have been protesting against a set of flight duty timing guidelines introduced in 2018 by DGCA — allegedly under pressure from some of the private airlines — which have been a source of discord and much unhappiness among pilots and crew.  The constant refrain is that the DGCA — like the airlines — is far more driven by the “commercial considerations of airlines than by safety considerations of passengers”. Pilots have maintained that flight duty timings are “pushed to the limit” and the DGCA does not intervene as it should. 

In one recent well-known instance, a private airline commander objected publicly to his 156-hour duty timing rosters, 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 — regardless of what he earned — as “this kind of flying is beyond my capacity”. The roster included four early morning and six “windows 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. 

The revised guidelines are an attempt to reverse this so rest and duty timings have been rationalised and definitions of night flying have been expanded. The latest draft has been well received by the commanders and crew but has simultaneously been dismissed as “too good to be true”. Pilots across airlines were unconvinced and argued that it remains to be seen whether DGCA walks its talk or backtracks when faced with pressure from the biggies. Readers should watch this space for answers.

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