Following what was the first incident of a pilot testing positive for COVID-19 in India, aviation regulator DGCA has moved to suspend breath analyser test, to check for alcohol consumption, at all airports across the country until further notice. On Sunday, low-cost carrier SpiceJet said one of its first officers had tested positive for the disease. The said pilot did not operate any international flight in March, and the last flight he operated was on March 21 from Chennai to Delhi and has been quarantined at his home since then.
“… this is to convey that due to the extraordinary circumstances in view of the outbreak of COVID-19 and also in view of the directions issued by Hon’ble High Court of Delhi and Hon’ble High Court of Kerala, the conduct of breath analyser test in respect of all aviation personnel as required under civil aviation requirements in force is temporarily suspended at all airports until further orders,” the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said in an order Sunday evening.
Notably, a union of Air India pilots had on March 20 made a representation to DGCA requesting a temporary stay on requirement to conduct pre-flight and post-flight breath analyser test on account of the COVID-19 outbreak. On Sunday, the Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association (ICPA) sent another letter to the regulator with a reminder following the SpiceJet case. “You may please note that reports indicate that a SpiceJet airline pilot has tested coronavirus positive. Continuing BA tests in these circumstances is extremely dangerous. As a responsible association, which has demonstrably believed in the efficacy of pre-flight and post-flight BA tests, all we ask is that safety of our pilots be considered by you and appropriate orders be passed,” the ICPA wrote in a letter to DGCA chief Arun Kumar on Sunday, prior to the regulator’s order. Last week, the Delhi High Court ordered suspension of breath analyser test of air traffic controllers through tube process. It followed a Kerala High Court judgment, which ordered suspension of breath analyser test at airports in the state.
For the flight crew, both cockpit and cabin, the breath analyser tests are conducted by medical officers of the respective airline posted at the airport. As per regulations, the crew are mandatorily supposed to undergo the test to check for alcohol content in their blood once prior to their flight and once after it. The test involves blowing air into an instrument, which shows the content of alcohol in the blood of the person taking the test. Pilots have raised concerns that the apparatus for the test remains the same for the entire crew and that “droplets/aerosols of infected pilots may further infect the healthy”.
In its Sunday orders, the DGCA noted that every aviation personnel reporting for duty will be required to submit an undertaking that he or she is not under the influence of alcohol and that he or she hasn’t consumed alcohol or any other psychotropic substance in the last 12 hours. Further, for flight crew members, the airlines have been asked to conduct random checks to ensure compliance with the rules. Even as all scheduled flights across the board have been suspended, airlines are operating special flights both domestically and internationally to repatriate passengers and ferry essential goods. In a March 6 order, the DGCA had said that any aviation personnel, showing symptoms of COVID-19, will be exempted from breathalyser test.
A SpiceJet spokesperson said: “As a precautionary measure, all crew and staff who had been in direct contact with him (infected pilot) have been asked to self-quarantine by staying at home for the next 14 days. All measures are being taken to provide appropriate medical care to him”.
A SpiceJet official said the airline was providing necessary information about its crew members to relevant government authorities that are trying to create a trail of who else might be infected as a result of coming in contact with the pilot in question.
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