I am an Air India pilot.
You will never know my name. Not because I am scared to tell you who I am, but because a gag order by my company’s management would mean immediate termination for me if I were to identify myself.
But I have a story. And I want you to know it.
I have been flying with the airline for 15 years. In the age of private airlines, I’ve often been asked why I work in the public sector. But even when Air India has been the subject of (often unfair) ridicule, I’ve always loved my job and my organisation – and defended it.
Our special and distinct place in our country’s history is not just in the black and white archives of the Tatas’ glamour years; it is when we are called upon for public service.
Remember the airlift from Kuwait after the invasion by Iraqi forces in 1990? We made the record books for rescuing 1.75 lakhs Indians to the safety of their home.
In 2006 we worked with the Navy as violence erupted in the streets of Beirut. During the SARS outbreak of 2003 we were deployed to bring back Indians from south east Asia. In 2011 we led the government’s Operation Safe-Homecoming as bombs rained down in Libya and the Gaddafi government fell.
In 2015, the Indian military and Air India flew 600 Indians from war-torn Yemen.
I wonder how many of you are aware that at the height of the corona-virus pandemic in China, it was Air India that was the first to reach Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, just to airlift 674 Indians. And since then we have never looked back.
As the offspring of an army officer, nothing has made me more proud than being a COVID-19 frontline warrior during these difficult and life-threatening times. Like all my colleagues, I knew that after every such evacuation flight, I could fall seriously ill, be shunned by my neighbours, bring back the virus to those I love. All of this has happened to my friends and me in different ways – yet each Vande Bharat flight felt like an honour and privilege.
I didn’t expect anything in return. Well, nothing except ‘well done’ from my fellow citizens and government. And so when the prime minister commended us, we were thrilled. His personalized letter to each one read: “The grit, determination and compassion displayed by the rescue team only goes to prove that the true test of character lies in adversity.”
Today we have completed 2,000 Vande Bharat evacuations, bringing home 6.7 lakh Indians and flying out countless others. But I feel sad, disheartened and abandoned by my airline and the management that runs it.
Almost as if our service in the line of duty was meaningless, we have been served with a 60-70% unilateral and illegal wage cut. We are all reasonable; we know that the pandemic has hit the economy globally and a certain rationalization of our salaries is inevitable.
But what hurts the most is that the giant cut is for those of who work at the frontline; whereas officials who never moved from behind their desks have only got a 7-10% wage reduction.
The allowances that a management official and a pilot get are radically different, but so are the jobs we do. By keeping basic pay, dearness allowance and home rent allowance clear of any reduction (which makes up just 25% of a pilot’s wages, but the bulk of a management executive’s salary) and slashing our flying allowances, a huge disparity has been created.
Effectively, the highly skilled professional who keeps the airline running, at risk to her or his life is the one bearing the brunt of the cut. Meanwhile, management officials continue to enjoy the perks of luxury club membership, free cars and a petrol allowance of 270 litres every month.
I think today of the day I kissed my two-year-old goodbye at the door for a COVID-19 flight, leaving her in the care of relatives. I think of my friends and colleagues who flew emergency flights to Hong Kong to pick up medical supplies. There may have been PPE kits in those boxes Air India ferried back but these were still early days of the crisis; the crew who flew that plane did not have adequate professional safety gear.
I think of how many of us change into our uniforms in cars parked outside the gates of our apartment complexes, so that we are not ostracized or our children are not shunned by housing societies and Residents’ Welfare Associations. My heart breaks at the thought of a younger colleague who tested COVID-19 positive on return from an evacuation flight. While he isolated himself in a quarantine facility, his father died from a heart attack. He had to keep away from the funeral.
Through this entire emotional and physical roller coaster – Air India pilots are tested for COVID-19 three times in the course of a single flight, that’s almost six times a month – it may shock you to know that we were not paid our salaries. But we didn’t let that distract us from our job; we assumed arrears could be settled at a later date.
Some of us have seen death at home, others have struggled with old parents who have tested positive. And then there are those among us – 56 at last count – who tested positive ourselves. Unlike all of you, who suffer no professional repercussions if you contract the virus, for me, 15 days of isolation is not considered good enough to get back to work.
Even if I show no symptoms in a fortnight, I will still not be considered ‘fit to fly,’ so, let me tell you about my friend who returned from an evacuation flight to find that she tested COVID-19 positive.
In spite of her best efforts at self-isolation, her 10-year-old child also tested positive. This pilot was not allowed to fly for a whole month. Pilots are the only professionals who need special medical fitness, cleared by the Aviation Medical Board. We have to show lung scans, cardio scans, blood tests, urine tests, and chest X-rays to prove fitness.
Now, unbelievably, Air India management has decreed that my colleague will not be paid for the month she was grounded. So what if she contracted COVID-19 only by working in the service of the country! This is what is called ‘fixed flight pay’.
This fixed flight pay is an industry standard and followed by all airlines, including IndiGo and Vistara. Essentially it’s like telling a soldier who takes a bullet at the war-front that he will not be paid his monthly salary because he had to be pulled back from active battle.
So what’s the solution? All we expect is reasonableness and respect, instead of this draconian 70% pay cut. So how about we consider a broad-based similar percentage cut across the board to the cumulative monthly wages (CTC) of all Air India employees? For pilots, keep us at least at par with the market standard (even if we are deployed for tasks that private carriers are never called upon for) and at the very least, surely the government should meet us and hear what we have to say?
Many of us have asked for a chance to meet with our Union aviation minister. Between him and us stands not just a media gag order, but endless airline executives and their red tape. They do not wish for a direct channel of communication to exist between us.
This is the story they won’t tell you.
You be the judge now.