Why are India’s pilots angry and anxious?

‘The pay cuts have been very tough on those with entire families to support.’
Anjuli Bhargava reports.

Covid has wreaked havoc on the psyche of many salaried sections. But one of the worst affected are airline commanders and first officers, who are in charge of people’s safe movement.

Pilots in India are now among the most stressed job holders with many fearful of their future.

Severe pay cuts, job insecurity and worries over their exposure to the virus have resulted in many pilots battling mounting pressure, forcing some to even take long unpaid leave to cope with the crisis.

“The pay cuts have been very tough on those with entire families to support, especially in our airline, where the cuts have been most severe. EMIs, children’s education and healthcare costs for old parents all add up,” says Praveen Keerthi, who is employed with Air India and is general secretary of the Indian Commercial Pilots Association.

In Air India, pilots and first officers have faced salary cuts anywhere between 60 and 75 per cent, since many are clocking in far lower flying hours leading to a slash in allowances, which form a large percentage of their pay package.

The senior-most commanders are earning close to Rs 2.5 lakh to Rs 3 lakh a month, but the first officers are getting Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000 a month.

The situation is no different for private airlines. While for some, the pain is not immediate since they have a buffer or some savings, for others the problem is real.

“No one envisaged a crisis like this ever. So while many do have some savings, others don’t,” explains an IndiGo first officer.

He says there have been many learnings from the pandemic for his colleagues, many of whom had lived beyond their means in the past.

Private airline pilots, too, have seen steep cuts in their pay packages although not as sharp as in Air India.

IndiGo trimmed the provision of 10 days of leave without pay to five recently, allaying the pain slightly for the pilots.

But many still say they have “borne the brunt” of the calamity while the management has given itself a milder cut.

Resentment against the management within the carrier has also been on the rise, but there is also grudging acceptance.

“If one looks around, there are many in a worse situation,” says an IndiGo captain, who recently got his command.

Airline managements and CEOs, however, say that India’s aviation sector has so far “been spared”.

“The global carnage, and in particular the regional downsizing, has been brutal,” says the CEO of an airline.

Just like all expats were dismissed across airlines in India as soon as the crisis began, Indian pilots in Emirates, Etihad and many other carriers mainly in West Asia lost their jobs overnight and have been returning home with no job in hand and scant hopes of finding any.

“In many cases, commanders who had spent 12 to 17 years of their working lives in these airlines were asked to leave overnight,” says a former Jet captain, whose colleagues have since been returning to Mumbai, Delhi and other cities with their families in tow.

The International Air Transport Association has pegged global job losses at 25 million, of which three million are expected to be in India.

“Countries and airlines with no home markets have cut staff mercilessly,” says a former Jet captain, who is in India after a long stint overseas.

He says that many captains and first officers are back in India with their wives and children (who had to be pulled out of schools at short notices) and are looking at how to keep their licences current, and stay fit so that they can return to work as and when the situation gets better.

Wide-body aircraft crew is facing a more severe crisis as many don’t have the required type-rating for smaller, narrow bodies that is the way air travel appears to be redefining itself post-pandemic.

Most experts say that point-to-point travel will be preferred and passengers will be averse to too many stops and aircraft changes to reach their final destination.

According to the CEO of an airline, pilots and airline staff have been worst hit in countries that have no home market to speak of.

Countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai and several in West Asia have no domestic market and rely solely on traffic from other countries.

These have been the worst affected. “Emirates, for instance, has no home market and had a large A380 operation in place that took a massive hit with the cessation of flights worldwide. So the only way was to introduce both very sharp cuts and massive lay-offs,” he explains.

Almost 1,200 A380 pilots have already been laid off by the carrier. Of the 600 left, more are expected to be asked to leave.

In comparison, pay cuts and leave without pay for pilots in India seem mild. The CEO says that with the looming uncertainty ahead, those who have a job should simply thank their stars. Something, after all, is better than nothing.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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