Friday, June 04, 2021

Vaccinated late, ‘left to fend for ourselves’, airlines staff say as Covid kills 14 pilots

New Delhi: Ferrying emergency cargo or bringing back stranded Indians from across the world, pilots have been at the forefront of India’s fight against Covid-19. But they have also been at the receiving end of severe distress — last year, resident welfare associations were ostracising them, and this year a delayed vaccination has hit them hard.

In May, at least 14 pilots from Air India, IndiGo and Vistara died of Covid, according to details shared by the companies.

The national carrier lost five pilots — Harsh Tiwary, G.P.S. Gill, Prasad Karmakar, Sandeep Rana and Amitesh Prasad. All five operated Vande Bharat flights — India’s repatriation mission that has facilitated the travel of more than 89.2 lakh people till now.

The Tata-owned Vistara lost two pilots, while IndiGo was the worst hit with seven deaths.

Speaking to ThePrint, several pilots from Air India and IndiGo highlighted that the deaths occurred as the vaccination drive was delayed, beginning only in May even as pilots from several international carriers got inoculated as early as last year.

Some pilots also noted the absence of support by the airlines as the second wave was raging in the country. They also pointed to assembly elections and Kumbh Mela in April and May, saying these events should not have been held.

An Air India spokesperson said vaccinations have begun now and are going on in “full swing”. But, the figures weren’t made available.

According to an IndiGo spokesperson, the company has inoculated 20,000 of its total 35,000 employees with the first dose and aims to cover the entire workforce by mid-June “subject to availability of vaccines”.

Several other airlines are also in the middle of the drive, and claimed that they are trying to safeguard the staff and their families.

Noting their contribution to the Vande Bharat mission, an Air India pilot who has been flying for over two decades said the pilots were left to fend for themselves in the second Covid wave that unfolded over April and May.

According to him, there were just no hospital beds or oxygen, so even the airline could not help. “We were all running from pillar to post. Many pilots were hospitalised with quite a few in the ICU as well. We all had to fend for ourselves,” he said.

Another senior pilot with Air India said any responsible management would have started the vaccination process way earlier.

“This is ridiculous. Pilots at Etihad and Qatar Airlines got vaccinated last year itself. We only got vaccinated on 16 May, after four deaths had already taken place. These could have been avoided if they were vaccinated on time,” he explained.

The issue, according to the first pilot quoted above, is that “everything gets caught up in a bureaucratic mess in this company”. “They issue circulars that say a lot but don’t do anything,” he said.

Both pilots agreed that the national carrier needed to be more proactive.

04/06/21 Taran Deol and Revathy Krishnan/Print

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