Flight schedules: Airlines compromising safety, say pilots

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Mumbai | Published: April 25, 2018 6:06:22 AM

The country’s civil aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has allowed airlines to use this as an operating norm. A Delhi High Court order of April 18 asked the airlines and the DGCA to pull a plug on this practice, citing five recent incidents that have resulted in both loss of life and aircraft, as result of fatigue arising out of constant flying.

“The airlines are mismanaging resources and always maintain that the flying a pilot does is within the stipulated duty hours,” said a senior pilot on condition of anonymity.“The airlines are mismanaging resources and always maintain that the flying a pilot does is within the stipulated duty hours,” said a senior pilot on condition of anonymity.

Are pilots being slogged with disregard to their health, fitness to fly and passenger safety? Here is a real pilot’s schedule with an Indian carrier: Take off from Delhi at 8.15 am for Amritsar, land at Amritsar at 9.30 am, take off from Amritsar at 10.10 am for Delhi, land at Delhi at 11.30 am, take off for Bangkok from Delhi at 1.55 pm, land in Bangkok at 6.25 pm (IST), take off from Bangkok for Mumbai at 1.45 pm the next day, land in Mumbai at 6.25 pm, take off from Mumbai for Chennai at 8.50 pm, land at 10.55 pm, next day take off for Delhi, his home base, at 6.20 pm and land at 9.15 pm. This is a very testing schedule, especially if you consider how tiring flying is. If you have flown, you’ll know just how tired you get after a flight. Now imagine taking several of them on the trot.

It is over this nature of scheduling that the pilot fraternity is at loggerheads with the management teams of airlines, saying they are fatigued. They complain that airlines are extracting more work out of them as they expand their fleet, without recruiting enough new pilots. “The airlines are mismanaging resources and always maintain that the flying a pilot does is within the stipulated duty hours,” said a senior pilot on condition of anonymity.

The problem with this scheduling is that while technically it is within the Flight Duty Time Limitation (FDTL) — binding rules for safe operations of an aircraft that state the number of hours a pilot needs to fly, the rest period, and so on — the airlines have found a way around them. Even though the rules are written in black and white under the Aircraft Rules of 1937 and Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) are also governed by international conventions through agencies like the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), airlines in India are being allowed ‘exemptions’ to the CAR (see table), specifically Section 4-4.2, which allows the regulator to make exemptions in exceptional circumstances to these regulations, on the basis of the risk assessment provided by the operator.

The country’s civil aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has allowed airlines to use this as an operating norm. A Delhi High Court order of April 18 asked the airlines and the DGCA to pull a plug on this practice, citing five recent incidents that have resulted in both loss of life and aircraft, as result of fatigue arising out of constant flying.

Activist Yeshwant Shenoy, who filed the PIL, says the court has acknowledged that the whole exercise is driven by a profit motive and this profit motive of the airlines is endangering people’s lives. “The airlines have been manipulating CAR for maximum duty hours and minimum rest period. They use variations to increase the duty hours and thereby are breaking rules.”

Industry professionals say that the problem is arising out of the rapid growth in air traffic in India — the highest in the world for the past five years at 18%. To put his growth in context, about three and a half years ago the total aircraft count in the country was 395, a number that was added over 67 years post-independence. Contrast this with 900, the total number of aircraft airlines have ordered in just the last three years. This has led to India’s airlines falling short of the pilot-to-aircraft industry benchmark of 13-14 sets of pilots (followed by legacy carriers like British Airways and Singapore Airlines), a set being a pilot and a co-pilot. In India there are less than 11 sets of pilots per aircraft, with budget carrier SpiceJet at the bottom of the pack with just 5.5 sets of pilots per aircraft.

“We have less than 11 sets of pilots per aircraft, and with 13 sets of pilots, there is a report that British Airways pilots are clinically burnt out. You can imagine what is the level of fatigue of the Indian pilots,” said a senior pilot not wanting to be identified. The study he refers to is a recent one by researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology and the British Airline Pilots’ Association, which questioned 1,147 active members of the association and found 20% of them report ‘clinical burnout levels’, with over three quarters reporting that they see colleagues fatigued when they arrive at work; the researchers did find a strong indirect relationship between the scores on the burnout scale and simulator performance arguing for better facilities for the pilots to be provided by the airline operators.

Though the total number of commercial licensees in India is around 12,000, not all of them are employable, and even if the pilots are on an airline’s rolls, not all of them are fit to fly. Within Jet Airways, the largest Indian airline, sources say that though the number of pilots is around 1,900, nearly 300 of them are not available to fly, as they are still under training. As per the DGCA data, Indian carriers deploy a total of 3,603 pilots and 3,914 co-pilots (December 2017).

In India, there is a massive requirement for pilots with airlines expanding not only on domestic routes but also to international markets and on the routes that are flown within three and half hours of flying time like the Middle Eastern routes. “Today all the Middle East flights are two consecutive operations — Dubai has day returns,all flights, be it Doha, Bahrain,Jeddah, all are consecutive operations,” pilots say.

“The Indian Scheduled Airline Operators have estimated employment opportunities for about 3,700 pilots and 3,600 co-pilots in the next five years,” said minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha in response to a question in the Lok Sabha.

It isn’t just flying time that is causing fatigue among pilots, there are also other factors. Aviation infrastructure is still developing in India and one reason is the amount of time a pilot has to sit at the airport waiting, or the amount of time he takes to exit an airport post flight — both not counted as his duty hours.The second is the dead-heading, a term more used by budget airline IndiGo, which essentially means the travel a pilot has to do to report for flight duty not at his base location. So, for example, if a pilot has to fly from Mumbai to another sector, but he is based in Delhi, he will have to fly from Delhi to Mumbai to operate the flight, but this time is not included in his duty hours. “We are trying to get this issue resolved, but positioning comes at a cost,” said an airline executive. Pilots say it is also because of ad-hoc planning and lack of advance rostering by the airlines that is responsible for this situation of theirs.

“Fatigue is very real and it is the cumulative fatigue that is an issue. Today most of our flying is done on autopilot. But if any emergency arises, I am not sure I will be as alert after a 3am flight as I should be,” said a senior commander with a private carrier.
A senior pilot flying with an Indian carrier says that fatigue for pilots is real on a cumulative basis. But the Indian regulator has not undertaken any independent study. The rule that is followed by other international agencies like the EASA and the FAA is that a pilot needs to be given rest for 36 hours if the pilot has been used for two nights consecutively, but most of the airlines make exceptions to this.

By Manisha Singhal

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