Beat The Workhorse and Save The Fox – Must Air India’s Pilots Be Punished For Doing Their Job?

Next time you fly on an Air India flight, do remember that you could be sitting inside a pressurised metal tube called an aeroplane, weighing upto 350 tons, surrounded by 140 tons of fuel, up in the sky at 37,000 feet, flying close to the speed of sound where your only chance of returning back safely on the ground would depend solely on the skills, training, experience and judgement of the two individuals in the cockpit.

If this doesn’t really bother you too much please feel free to discard this article and carry on with your day. On the other hand, if this does make you pause and think, do consider the following facts:

1. Air India pilots represent approximately 0.000192307% of the country’s population.

2. Pilots don’t just defy gravity, they defy the theory of evolution itself. All land based mammals (including humans) have a brain that is hardwired to walk on land in a 2D environment. Pilots work in a 3D environment where moving close to the speed of sound a thigh altitudes is involved. This defies nature itself. Only submariners and deep sea divers face such challenges but both can stop to assess the situation, think and ask for help. An airplane does not stop mid air and there is nobody available to help you at 37,000 feet in the sky!

3. Each Boeing 777 owned by Air India costs around INR 2800 crores and can accommodate upto 350 passengers. It carries upto 145 tons of fuel and flies at speeds upto 85% of the speed of sound. This makes it a virtual rocket with wings. Inflight, the Captain is SOLELY legally responsible for everything that involves the safety of the aircraft and everything inside it (including every single life on board).

4. There are many such large aircraft in Air India’s inventory such as the Boeing 747 and 787 with long range heavy lift capabilities which make it an essential strategic arm of the country. This is why Air India was the governments choice to rescue stranded Indians during the COVID pandemic. Only a small number of pilots are qualified to fly these. (It takes upto a decade to train some of them).

5. Everything a pilot says or does in the cockpit is recorded and analysed later by experts and computers. A pilot could be grounded or even face a court of enquiry if found guilty of malpractices. No other profession requires so much accountability.

6. Pilots undergo rigorous medical fitness tests all their lives, each year. A failure of a medical check test could abruptly end a career.

7. Pilots undergo compulsory breath alcohol tests before each flight with a zero tolerance limit.

8. Pilots work in shifts and have to be alert and awake at any given time of the day or night, irrespective of the time zone. A small error in judgement or reaction could make the difference between life and death.

9. Air India’s pilots are the only Indian pilots qualified to fly near the North Pole, over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans where there are no ground aids to help them navigate or nearby airports to land immediately in case of a dire emergency. It takes years of hard work and training to qualify on these routes.

10. Aircraft can fly at high altitudes upto 40,000 feet where the air pressure and oxygen levels are so low that air needs to be pumped into the cabin at high pressure for occupants to stay alive. A fall in pressure at those altitudes could make a person unconscious within 25 seconds and die within the next few minutes. Pilots train regularly to save you from such situations, amongst many others.

11. Reduced oxygen levels in the cockpit reduce the ability of the eyes to focus and the brain to respond. However, pilots have to be trained regularly to perform their jobs despite these physical limitations.

12. Air India’s Pilots are trained to fly in almost every kind of weather, including severe thunderstorms and hurricanes near the tropics, snow storms in Higher Latitudes, land in strong winds and high altitude destinations like Leh and land in almost zero visibility conditions at speeds of upto 300 kmph when even driving a car at 30 kmph becomes impossible.

13. Pilots are trained to handle every conceivable emergency in the air including fires, mechanical failures, electrical malfunctions, communication disruptions, navigation failures etc and cannot leave the aircraft under any circumstances till the last passenger has been safely evacuated on the ground. This is the law and THERE ARE NO PARACHUTES.

14. An Air India captain is also a public servant and a law enforcement officer on a flight with the powers to arrest potential trouble makers under international law.

15. There are no public holidays for a pilot.

16. More than 60 pilots of Air India have been COVID positive in the line of duty.

The government of India in its profound wisdom, has just reduced the pay of these pilots by upto 70%, with retrospective effect from March whereas senior officials in Air India who work on the ground and work from home and who have perks like cars, accommodation and free petrol have been given a 5% salary cut.


The even more interesting fact is that high officials and bureaucrats in the Ministry of Civil Aviation who are the actual decision makers responsible for Air India and whose decisions have a direct impact on Air India’s financial position, have not taken a salary cut at all!

The reason cited by the Government for imposing a 70% pay cut on Air India’s pilots is economic austerity measures.

Is this justified?

You decide!

Disclaimer: (Written by a Surprised Air Passenger)

(Indian PSU: All about Indian Public Sector Undertakings. Follow @IndianPSUs for all the News & Views on PSUs, Corporates, Markets, Bureaucracy, Public Policy)

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