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Five senior Air India pilots die of Covid in May, vaccine drive hit by scarcity

On May 4, following a threat by its pilots to stop flying if not vaccinated, Air India had said it would organise camps to inoculate all of its employees by the end of May.

Written by Pranav Mukul | New Delhi |
Updated: June 3, 2021 6:55:51 am
An Air India special flight during Covid-induced lockdowns. (Representational Photo)

At a time when Air India’s pilots have repeatedly demanded vaccination for crew and their families, it has emerged that at least five senior pilots with the national carrier succumbed to Covid during May.

Official sources in Air India and the pilots’ union identified the pilots who died as Captain Prasad Karmakar, Captain Sandeep Rana, Captain Amitesh Prasad, Captain G P S Gill and Captain Harsh Tiwary.

Tiwary, 37, died on May 30 and was a first officer on the Boeing 777 aircraft. All of them were operating wide-bodied aircraft being flown for overseas flights, and were a part of Vande Bharat Mission.

On May 4, following a threat by its pilots to stop flying if not vaccinated, Air India had said it would organise camps to inoculate all of its employees by the end of the month. However, three of its camps were cancelled due to non-availability of vaccines, and the drive commenced with a delay on May 15. The airline had earlier held vaccination camps for its employees aged over 45 years.

In a letter written Tuesday to Air India’s Director (Operations) Captain R S Sandhu, the Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association (ICPA) noted: “Pilots are being quarantined, testing positive, and succumbing to Covid at an alarming frequency. Even immediate family members are suffering and succumbing to this deadly virus… we fear infecting our family members on returning home after operating VBM (Vande Bharat Mission) flights. With this backdrop, we need support from the company to keep performing our duties and keep our families safe”. The ICPA represents pilots operating wide-bodied planes.

On April 14, the ICPA had written a letter to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) seeking a temporary suspension of the mandatory requirement of pre- and post-flight breath-analyser tests. The DGCA, on April 27, issued an order, saying that 10 per cent of the flight crew members and cabin crew members will be subjected to random preflight breath-analyser test for an entire operation of an organisation in India.

All breath-analyser tests were suspended last year in March on account of the pandemic, but were resumed in September after the first Covid curve in the country started flattening.

In response to a written reply in the Lok Sabha in February this year, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri wrote that as of February 1, a total of 1,995 Air India employees had contracted Covid, including crew members, of which 583 people were hospitalised. At the time, there were no fatalities among the crew but 19 ground staff had succumbed to Covid and other complications. In July 2020, Air India had announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh each to support the families of deceased employees.

Responding to queries sent by The Indian Express, an Air India spokesperson said: “Air India has always been according top priority to the safety and protection of our flying crew, the frontline ground personnel and also the personnel working in the back offices. Regular pre and post flight tests and round-the-clock assistance on any health related issues were made available for the employees, especially for those in the frontline. A vaccination drive has been going on in full swing for our eligible employees ever since India rolled out its vaccination programme with camps being held regularly at Delhi and all over the network.”

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