EXCLUSIVE: 225 pilots Covid positive already but no vaccine or help from Air India: ICPA

Representative body of Indian Airlines Limited pilots condemns the national carrier’s behaviour towards its flying staff and threatens to stop work.
Air India


As many as 255 Air India pilots were diagnosed with Covid-19 by April 23, 2021, Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association (ICPA) General Secretary T. Praveen Keerthi told Sabrang India on May 5.

Where once 79 pilots were infected with coronavirus on September 4, 2020, more than triple the number have been reported in seven months. Cabin crew members and pilots, who still have not received Covid-19 vaccines, are left to fend for themselves, said Keerthi.

“The problem is we were never considered frontline workers. Even though we were the first to operate and even travel to China, we are still waiting for our chance to get the vaccine,” he said.

The after-effects of this drawn-out wait manifested itself in the April 29 incident wherein a Delhi-Amritsar-Rome flight that landed in Italy was found to have 30 Covid-positive passengers along with two employees.

As a precautionary measure, the Italian government there quarantined all 242 passengers for 14 days. Similarly, Taiwan, Nepal, Israel, Germany, Nigeria, UAE banned flights from India after the incident.

Meanwhile, tired of waiting for their turn, the airline pilots have threatened to stop work if the flying crew is not vaccinated as soon as possible. In a letter dated May 4, Keerthi said, “Due to our unwavering support, VBM and relief operations continue to run smoothly even in the face of a resurgence of even deadlier strains of Covid-19. All we got in return for our dedication and sacrifices is a massive discriminatory pay cut.”


As for airline claims of a 24-hour telemedicine and a care-at-home dedicated helpline, the Captain dismissed it all as “eye-wash.” He talked of one pilot who was in dire need of a ventilator but did not receive any assistance from the airline.

Regarding vaccination camps, he agreed that such an event did take place in Chennai but it was only for work-from-home personnel not cabin crew or pilots. Sabrang India sent a query regarding the same to Air India but received no response.

Nonetheless, employees said that they do receive PPE kits and undergo Covid-testing before boarding a flight. Keerthi who spoke to the cabin crew and white-body pilot in Rome earlier, said that in this respect the airline follows due protocol for testing.

However, other countries alter their Covid-guidelines. In the case of AI 1123, the Italian administration asked for a RT-PCR test within the past 48 hours instead of the previous 72 hours timeframe. Keerthi suggested that the change in guideline along with the 11-hour or so journey to Rome may have resulted in the current outcome.

Covid-19’s incubation period varies from 2-14 days.

Does this mean RT-PCR tests are inaccurate?

Sabrang India talked to two doctors from Delhi and Mumbai cities both of whom assured that RT-PCR test is an effective tool to detect Covid-19. However, both Covid warriors also pointed out that no medical test can be 100 percent.

According to the New Delhi doctor who previously worked at a Covid ward and wished to remain unnamed, “RT-PCR tests have around 73 percent accuracy. This means that out of 100 people, around 27 people may have a false negative report. This is unless the sample has not been taken properly. But, in case of a large group like the flight passengers, what should have happened was that each individual should have been quarantined before the flight.”

Similarly, Dr Deepak Sonone, working at a Covid-ward in Mumbai said, “False negatives mostly seen when testing is too early or too late. Many people reported that we are having high scores on CT scan and still the RT-PCR report is negative. That means patients are late to test and infection has already settled in the lower respiratory tract whereas samples are collected from the upper respiratory tract.”

The main issue, said the Delhi doctor, is the laxity among people regarding the spread of the virus. He argued that people should ensure properly covering their mouth and nose with N95 or a surgical mask and most important of all, maintain social distancing.

“The best thing to do right now is to maintain social distance and avoid travel unless necessary. Even airlines nowadays claiming they purify the air inside the plane is questionable,” he said. Incidentally, Keerthi shared the same scepticism.

What next for AI employees?

Following angry threats from the ICPA, Air India announced that all its employees will be vaccinated by the end of May. However, Keerthi told Sabrang India that the airline also needs to consider reducing the number of flights and revising the pay structure. This especially considering the recent 50 percent pay-cut during a health crisis.

When asked what passengers should do in the current situation he said, “It is advisable that people avoid travelling altogether. Do not go out unless there’s an emergency.”


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