The eight-hour delay of Air India flight AI 302 to Sydney due to crew shortage on February 15 and the two-hour delay of flight AI 887 to Mumbai on February 17 due to a pilot getting caught up with Mahashivratri festivities are far from isolated incidents at the country’s national carrier.
An internal study done by the airline reveals that a no-show by nearly half the cabin crew members for scheduled duties over a seven-month period ranked as the primary reason for AI’s dismal on-time performance record.
A sample audit done at the airline’s southern base (with 152 AI cabin crew members, 57 employees from AI’s wholly-owned subsidiary Airline Allied Service Ltd) between April and October 2014, shows that on an average, 46.4 per cent of those who were rostered requested for and got their allotted schedules changed during the period last year. These changes were effected despite the rosters having been made after taking into account duty time limitations, crew rest period, crew availability, leave requests, absenteeism and training. On an average, each crew member is assigned eight domestic flights and four-five international departures every month. No flights are given on nine days every month on account of weekly offs and non-allocation.
A senior airline executive who did not wish to be identified said, “Rosters made in other airlines are sacrosanct; here changes start being made once the schedule is finalised. Thereafter, there is confusion finding alternate available crew. There are instances of employees reporting late or refusing to show up at the last minute. Flights get held up as a result.”
The roster is generated on the 24th day of every month for the next month, with the last update being sent in by the eighth day of each month. Post that, as many as 407 changes were made out of total allotment of 1,125 rostered in 25 days between August 8-31. In September, the number of changes stood at 572 (51 per cent of the roster) and in October at 579 (41.5 per cent). The number of changes peaked to 59 per cent at 636 changes in November out of a total of 1,080 rostered for the month.
The audit report notes that no standard procedures are being practiced while making changes in rosters. Rosters are being made “based on choice and willingness of crew” to perform in particular flights. There is no systematic method of checking availability, neither is there any data available of any crew refusing particulars flights.
“It appears that willingness of the crew is the most important criteria in allotting the flight…There is no system or proper record of crew being contacted, their reason for refusal, justification in detail for withdrawing any crew from certain international flights,” the report has noted. It appears from the study that crew members prefer flying to destinations such as Sharjah and Muscat than on other long-haul routes.
For the airline, the worrying fact is that its southern base is one of the more disciplined zone, while Delhi has the maximum number of flights and, therefore, the maximum number of crew members. In narrow-body flights, sometimes the entire roster gets overhauled after being finalised. “What is worse is there are no records of requests for changes being put in by crew members,” added the executive.
According to an official, on a national scale, it is estimated that more than 50 per cent of the airline’s cabin crew members across stations do not report to duty as scheduled, leading to inordinate flight delays. Most employees place requests for change in duties once rosters are made, disrupting firmed schedules. Cabin crew prefer mid-haul international flights to Sharjah and Muscat and turn down duties scheduled on longer routes to Australia and United States, which are not so close to home.
Moreover, they refuse flights at the last minute or show up late, leading to dismal on-time performance, which was at an industry low of 72.3 per cent in November, 59.8 per cent in December and 52.1 per cent in January.
Despite these irregularities, shortage of cabin crew has been cited as the primary reason for flight delays. The civil aviation ministry recently directed the cash-strapped carrier to hire 800 cabin crew members to address the issue. Apart from this, the airline has initiated the process to recruit 197 pilots.
Average working hours of an Air India cabin crew member working on wide-body aircraft stand at 64 hours per month, while cabin crew members on narrow-body aircraft work for 62 hours a month. As per DGCA regulations, commercial pilots and cabin crew members can fly up to 1,000 hours a year. Currently, Air India pilots, on an average, fly 55 hours a month, as compared to 80 hours flown by pilots in private airlines.
The directive for additional hiring has come despite productivity of existing staff being at sub-optimal levels, a senior executive in the airline said, adding” “Flight delays due to shortage of crew is only about 2-3 per cent of overall delays. Hiring additional crew gives some level of comfort, but what is required is better managemen”.”