“We parked the plane in Delhi, switched off the engines, switched on our phones, and the guy sitting next to me said, ‘Oh my God, so-and-so has passed away,'” said the pilot, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job. “I remember just falling to the floor when I heard it … I could not 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 crucial role in India’s efforts to contain the outbreak — but faced steep pay cuts and were denied vaccine priority. Many ended up contracting Covid and more than a dozen died.
“The majority of our colleagues continue to unconditionally face danger every day in the biohazard frontline,” said the Federation of Indian Pilots, a national organization of more than 5,000 pilots across numerous airlines, in a letter to the government in early April.
On June 8, the federation filed a petition to the Mumbai High Court requesting greater insurance benefits and compensation for pilots and bereaved families.
“The pilots, cabin crew and other airline staff are working unceasingly in the times of the pandemic and have rendered service to the nation,” the petition said. “Hence, it is necessary to take steps to ameliorate their sufferings.”
‘Massive’ pay cuts
In both the first and second wave, the government scrambled to evacuate stranded citizens and transport critical supplies to hard-hit places — measures that relied heavily on the nation’s pilots.
A number of airlines were involved with repatriation flights during a stringent nationwide lockdown during the first wave in April last year. The efforts were led by Air India, the government-owned national flag carrier; private airlines later offered commercial repatriation flights as well, with fares capped by the government.
“Any pilot rostered for duties for such flights had to report for duty without any individual choice of refusal in the matter,” the petition said.
The commercial pilot said he and his colleagues could decide not to work on those flights — but it meant no pay in a time of huge economic upheaval and uncertainty. Like many employees in India across hard-hit sectors, working during the pandemic didn’t feel like much of a choice at all.
“We had no idea what the pay would be, when our next salary would come,” the pilot said. He used to be paid monthly — but during the pandemic, his company switched to paying pilots per flight. The decrease in travel meant pilots were earning “at least 50%, if not less, of our regular take-home pay,” he said.
The statement sparked outrage from the pilots’ unions, which said in a counter statement that the airline was “peddling misleading half-truths about our wages and the current market scenario.”
CNN reached out to Air India and the Ministry of Civil Aviation, but both declined to comment.
Nearly 2,000 Air India personnel took part in the repatriation flights to more than two dozen countries. A sixth of them have since tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than 500 had to be hospitalized, the federation said, citing the aviation minister.
During the second wave, pilots helped fly in critical supplies like oxygen concentrators and medicine from overseas. Since February this year, 13 pilots have died of Covid, the federation said.
The commercial pilot said he had not contracted the virus but while he and his colleagues took every possible precaution “there are multiple points of exposure,” especially on the long-haul flights he flew, which typically stretched to 16 hours. “There’s only so much one can do,” he said.
Flying with no vaccines
Throughout it all, pilots were denied access to a crucial piece of protection: vaccination.
India’s vaccination rollout began in January, with medical and frontline workers given priority. Some transport workers, including railway employees, were categorized as frontline workers — but not pilots or air crew.
“We did not want to make a very big noise because we left it to the best judgment of the government and the country,” the commercial pilot said. “But then the vaccine was made available more and more to younger categories, but still we were not being prioritized. 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 “exposes a huge gap in our national effort to combat the disease.”
The exclusion of pilots “undermines the tremendous risks undertaken by our members and reflects a level of apathy for the lives of pilots and their families,” the federation said.
But pilots weren’t able to receive vaccines until May, when the government opened up inoculation to all people above age 18. Even then, it was difficult — with people scrambling for vaccines across the country, vaccine centers reported massive shortages, and many had to temporarily close or turn people away at the door while they waited for more supplies.
The vaccine chaos began calming down in the past month, with cases trending downward in India and vaccination rates ticking back up. But deaths lag behind infections, meaning Covid fatalities continued rising for weeks after daily new infections began declining.
The danger of air crews’ jobs means “they need a conducive social security coverage for their families” in the case of death or disability, the federation argued. It pointed to Air India as an example, saying the airline provided only “a paltry” 1 million rupees ($13,700) in compensation to the families of crew who died of Covid.
“No amount of monetary compensation can possibly act as a replacement for invaluable human life,” the petition said — but it is the government’s duty to care for the families of pilots “risking their personal safety, flying across the globe and in the bargain dealing with the most deadliest of pathogens ever known to mankind,” the federation added.
The commercial pilot said if he was called, he would likely still carry out flights — but with more apprehension now, and worry for his and his family’s future. Before the second wave, he had felt like the outbreak was under control — but the past few months have unraveled any sense of security.
“I have seen loved ones crying on video calls, on the news, even on personal phone calls,” he said. “It is just heartbreaking, and I would never ever want this for my wife or children.”