Pilot fatigue series (Part 3): A customer takes up the onus to fight for air safety. But is anyone listening?

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The pilots may have complained, and the airlines and the regulator have demurred, but eventually it is a customer – a 69-year-old frequent flyer – who has taken up the fight to ensure safety while traveling by air.

A petition filed by Vinod Kumar Vyas, a businessman from Bengaluru, has prompted the Karnataka High Court to issue notices to the Ministry of Civil Aviation and industry regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). The notices were issued on October 23.

Vyas has challenged three clauses of the Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) that were made public by the DGCA last year. The CAR, which are guidelines that the regulator puts forward for airlines, specifically focus on the flight schedule of pilots, and thus impact their work-life balance.

“A plain reading of the said CAR,” Vyas says in his petition, “would make it manifestly clear that the DGCA has modified the rules to suit the operators alone, while completely jeopardising the interest of the crew members and the passengers.”

It is clear why Vyas is concerned about the safety of passengers. He lost his brother-in-law in a crash in 1993. And for someone who has been flying since 1982, Vyas has been concerned about the changes in regulations on flight duty time limitations (FDTL) for pilots and other crew members.

The FDTL specifies the working and resting hours for pilots and the rest of the crew.

“The petitioner is a concerned citizen with respect to aviation safety and has bona fide belief that certain recent changes in the aviation regulations would pose a very serious threat to aviation safety,” Vyas says.

It is not very tough why Vyas would be concerned. Just a look at the timeline of events in the past few years will make things clearer.

Much turbulence

The Air India Express crash in Mangaluru in 2010 that killed 158 passengers, had forced the government and the regulator to revisit regulations that govern a pilot’s flying and resting schedule. Investigations had found out, as the first part of this series had highlighted, that the pilot failed to “appreciate the dangerous situation…partly due to fatigue and sleep inertia”.

A committee set up by the government suggested a few changes, including lengthening the rest period of pilots and restricting night time flying. But the airlines differed, saying that the changes would impact their revenue.

Not for the first time, DGCA agreed to the airlines’ demands and included a clause in the regulations that allowed companies to make their own variations.

Hope for pilots revived in April 2018, when the Delhi High Court responding to a petition filed by lawyer Yeshwanth Shenoy, came down heavily on the regulator and airlines.

The court asked the DGCA to revisit regulations pertaining to pilots’ duty and rest time. It also asked the regulator to remove the clause that allowed airlines to bring variations.

The victory though was short-lived. In November 2018, the DGCA recommended new changes in the FDTL, that again made conditions tougher for pilots, but more commercially viable for airlines. A few important ones, and which Vyas highlights in his petition, were:

# Clause 13 of the 2019 CAR, allowed airlines to put pilots on two consecutive nights of flight operations. Earlier, the CAR had barred airlines from doing so.

# Clause 4.1.2 gives airlines the discretion to decide on standard allowance time for post-flight duties that include parking, interaction with and customs checks. This was against the 2010 Committee’s recommendation to give 30 minutes of allowance to pilots to complete post-flight duties. The Committee had asked the allowance to be included in the flight duty period. Airlines were not amused, and the DGCA seems to have promptly made changes.

# Similarly, Clause 16 allows airlines to extend a pilot’s flight and duty time, due to ‘unforeseen circumstances,’ by maximum flight time of 4.5 hours, and also his flight duty period to 9 hours on a cumulative basis for a consecutive period of 28 days. Earlier, the limit was three hours for flight time, and six hours of flight duty, over 30 days.

In effect, these changes lengthen working hours of pilots, again making them vulnerable to fatigue.

Pilot unions had raised their voice against the changes. “In the interest of flight safety and most importantly public safety, most of the changes that are being proposed in this draft are not only unacceptable but downright dangerous and appear to reflect a dubious commercial motive,” a PTI report had quoted a statement from three pilot unions earlier this year.

While it remains to be seen how the government and the DGCA respond to Vyas’s petition, for pilots, the tough conditions continue.

Despite the opposition from pilots, says a flying officer who goes by the Twitter handle @FlyingMariner, “There have been no changes so far. We still fly a lot more than what is prescribed, and almost daily there is flight roster change.”

What are airlines doing?

Some of the airlines had earlier made attempts to change. AirAsia India, for instance, had in 2014 submitted India’s first fatigue risk management manual and scheme for pilots with the DGCA.

“Unfortunately since the regulator was unaware of the concept, so it called the manual too futuristic and rejected it,” says Amit Singh, an industry veteran and Fellow of London’s Royal Aeronautical Society. At the time in 2014, Singh was the Director of Flight Operations, AirAsia India.

Little has been done since then. Moneycontrol reached out to some of the major airlines in the country, to understand how they are handling pilot fatigue. Only one, Vistara responded.

While underlining that it adheres to DGCA’s regulations on FDTL, the airline’s Capt. Basil Kwauk, Senior VP – Flight Operations, said:

“As of now, current Indian regulations don’t require an airline to have a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) in place. However, Vistara has proactively developed one to ensure continuous monitoring and maintaining fatigue related risks… We have also developed an in-house Fatigue Management Training Course for both, Crew and Ground Staff engaged in Crew Rostering work.”

Kwauk added that pilots in the airline, which is a joint venture between Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines, have a usual flying pattern of 5 days on and 2 days off in a week. “Pilots in Vistara enjoy a roster that gives them a work-life balance and ample time to spend with their families,” he added.

On twin issues of reporting fatigue and flight duty periods of pilots, the senior executive said, “we encourage pilots to report fatigue at all times, and all reported cases are investigated in detail to assess the cause of it.

“We always keep a buffer in the flight duty timings when planning the roster to ensure crew has ample rest between flights and that time spent beyond flight time and in transportation doesn’t eat into the overall flight duty time. “

While Vistara may have taken an initiative to address these issues, pilots in the industry say that reporting fatigue is a double-edged sword. And that is why many of the industry observers also hold the pilot community equally responsible for the working conditions.

Pilots also at fault

In an earlier feature, Moneycontrol had detailed how pilots have put themselves in a lifestyle trap. High pay and a seemingly glamorous job also led to expensive hobbies and big homes. And then the pressure to maintain it mounts.

Lawyer Yeshwanth Shenoy, whose petition had led to the Delhi High Court order, comes down heavily on pilots. “They are slaves to EMIs, and nothing matters more than salary.”

The senior industry executive quoted above adds, “While airlines are being greedy by not hiring enough pilots or going slow on giving leave, thus improving profits, pilots are being greedy by wanting to fly beyond their monthly quota.”

A pilot can earn up to Rs 18,000 for every extra hour that he or she flies. And this is beyond the 70 hours of flying for which the pilot gets a fixed pay. Moreover, many hesitate to report sick or fatigue, fearing a cut in their yearly bonus.

Further, Shenoy points to a division among pilots. While some do want to raise their voice against the regulations, there are many who don’t want to.

But eventually, adds Shenoy, the onus lies on the government, regulator and airlines to correct the situation. “It is about the general public. The passengers may seem to be concerned only about fares and leg rooms, but they don’t understand how an airline functions,” says Shenoy.

“In a day, lakhs of people are flying in India. We can’t play Russian roulette with their lives,” he adds.

It will be thus interesting to track how things pan out for the petition filed by Vyas.

This is the concluding story of the three-part series on pilot fatigue. While the first part looked at the high incidence of pilot fatigue India, the second checked on the international trend.

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