Saturday, September 09, 2017

Breath analysis test: Rules differently interpreted leads to face-off between DGCA and Air India

The Directorate-General of Civil Aviation’s (DGCA) decision early this week to ground over 130 pilots and over 400 cabin crew of Air India for failing to take the mandatory breath analysis (BA) test on arrival in India might seem a simple issue but it comes with layers of complexities.

The DGCA had done a surveillance in June and found that the crew — primarily on the daily service between Kuwait and Chennai which stops at Hyderabad or Goa on different days of the week before reaching its final destination and Dubai-Goa-Bengaluru route — had skipped the mandatory BA test and decided to take action against them.

On the surface, the DGCA had done what it is supposed to do — ensure that all safety measures are followed. The complexities started surfacing when Air India decided to interpret the law differently.

According to the airline, the Aircraft Rules say that pilots have to take the BA test at their last port of call in India.

There is a basic flaw in Air India’s interpretation. It will make no sense to have a BA test long after a flight has taken off? Some pilots themselves maintain that the airline has taken a wrong call adding that the BA test should be done before a flight takes off. This will ensure the safety of a flight and if the pilot is drunk then he should not be entrusted with the safety of the passengers.

In other parts of the world, flight crew has to go for a simple BA test before a flight. This is done through a breathalyzer which is a small computerised machine into which the crew is asked to blow to get an immediate reading of the alcohol content in the body. If the result is positive the test is repeated and if this too is positive then a blood sample is collected. Once the blood also tests positive, the member is not permitted to operate the flight. As per the rules, a pilot is not allowed to fly for three months after the first violation, for the second offence the punishment is six months and for the third offence the punishment is two years.
However, doing a BA test before a flight takes off is not easy, particularly at an international airport as having a doctor at all the airports might not be feasible. Further, there have been instances when pilots have been allowed to fly after the regulator has been made aware of pilot lapse as enforcing the rule would delay the flight by over an hour and cause inconvenience to passengers. In one instance, a pilot contacted the DGCA before take-off and said that he had not done his BA test but by the time the DGCA acted he was already on the taxiway waiting to take off.

Another alternative is that the BA test be done at the first port of call of the flight back to India because while the crew might not drink while operating a flight they might have had a drink during their night halt before operating the flight back. With alcohol remaining in the blood for up to 12 hours, conducting the BA test at the first airport of arrival gives a good chance of catching someone under the influence. Finding the lapse in an Indian airport will also make prosecution under Indian law easier.
However, this too comes with practical difficulties. A pilot gives the example of the Male-Bengaluru-Delhi flight. If the crew took the BA test at the first port of call (Bengaluru) it will involve going to see the doctor who is about 25 minutes away from the airport and then returning to the airport to fly the aircraft to its next destination.
08/09/17 Ashwini Phadnis/Business Line