At last count, nearly one in every five air traffic controllers at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport — the country’s largest — was out of action, either directly or indirectly affected by Covid-19. Officials at POSOCO — India’s electricity grid manager — have alluded to a “worrying shortage” of operators, including those manning some control rooms. These are some of the critical infrastructure operations that could be potentially at risk from the second surge that the country is witnessing.
According to Health Ministry data, as of Sunday morning, there were 33,49,644 active Covid cases in India, an increase of 80,934 over the previous day.
A senior officer involved with POSOCO said there was a “worrying shortage” of operators, adding a similar shortage of trained, experienced manpower handling power plant control rooms has also been cited, with community-level infection spread resulting in entire batches or shifts being forced to quarantine if either one of them, or their family members, gets infected. “Most of these are involved in operations that cannot be handled outside the control room, however trained a personnel is,” the officer said.
“There are very few reserves, given that a shift of 10 may have only small number as back-up. With entire shifts gone in one go, there is a problem. The situation is being handled for now, but there is a concern,” the officer said. This is more worrying since across a number states, electricity system operators are running a power network with an increasing share of renewables, thereby increasing the level of supervision required on a day-to-day basis.
In response to a set of queries by The Indian Express, a spokesperson for the Airports Authority of India (AAI) said 85 of 402 air traffic control officers (ATCOs) at Delhi airport were either Covid-19 positive themselves, including asymptomatic, or have an immediate family member affected. Further, 16 of 112 ATCOs at Ahmedabad airport were also affected. Air traffic controls across the country, including at privatised airports, is managed by AAI.
“While there are rules capping the number of hours each controller can be on duty, there is no doubt additional workload. At Delhi ATC, we have shut down 1 or 2 channels to manage the shifts. At one point, there were even discussions about calling those people on duty who themselves didn’t have Covid but someone in their family did. But there was opposition to this plan, and ultimately it was shot down,” a source at Delhi ATC said.
A senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, downplayed any concerns of disruption in ATC operations arising from the increase in caseload, saying currently, “we are operating only 30-40 per cent of our capacity”.
Taking cognisance of the threat to frontline crew in the aviation industry, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), in an order dated April 27, noted “in view of rising number of Covid19 cases, the DGCA has reviewed the conduct of BA test of all aviation personnel”. For ATC operators, the aviation safety watchdog has mandated randomised breathalyser test before commencement of duty at each station on a daily basis.
Furthermore, in a letter written to chief secretaries of all states on the same day, Tuhin Kanta Pandey, Secretary, Civil Aviation (Additional Charge) wrote: “It is understandable that the crew, engineers, air traffic controllers, technicians, ground staff and frontline workers in aviation face significant risk in discharging their duties”. “To ensure the sector continues to render essential services to the nation, it is imperative that the aviation work force is covered on priority in the vaccination program,” he added.
In the response, the AAI spokesperson also said: “Whole country is facing challenging situation due present sudden rise of Covid-19 cases across the country. However, learning from the past experience of Covid 1st wave, AAI is fully geared up to ensure continuity of air traffic operations by strictly following Covid protocol, sanitization of ATC Units, vaccination of ATCOs and keeping additional ATC manpower as standby to meet any immediate operational requirement. We are confident that our airport operations would continue to be smooth”.
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