Air India pilots have objected to speculative theories that attribute Saturday's air crash at Mangalore to “pilot error.” Instead, they say “archaic” regulations issued by the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in 1992, on how long pilots can fly and be on duty without a break, could be a significant factor in causing “pilot fatigue.”

“Flying is not all about advanced technology, it is about man-machine interface,” says a retired Air India pilot who was earlier a pilot with the Indian Air Force. He pointed out that while the regulations on Flight and Duty Time Limitations [FDTL], issued in December 1992, prescribe a flying time of nine hours and 12 hours of duty time (inclusive of flying time), they do not take into account the ‘time-of-day factor.' Flying during the night — on a graveyard shift — is not the same as flying during the day, when the human body can remain alert longer,” he said.

More significantly, the regulations do not take into account the fact that pilots flying across time zones undergo “significantly more stress.” The retired pilot, who in the late1990s was also active in the pilot's association, said: “Although I would not jump to the conclusion that Saturday's crash was directly attributable to pilot fatigue, there is no question that the regulatory regime has not kept pace with the changed environment in which pilots fly, almost two decades after they were designed.”

Referring to Flight IX 812, an Air India pilot said Captain Zlatko Glusica commanded the flight from Kozhikode to Dubai on Friday night before returning to Mangalore on Saturday morning. The pilot might have been “well-rested” on that particular leg of the journey, but might have “undergone cumulative stress over a period of time.” “Many Air India pilots, he said, complete the stipulated maximum of 1,000 hours in a calendar year in 10-11 months, implying that their flying time is compressed in a shorter time span than what the regulation intended.”

Pilots say that Air India, until a few years ago, followed more favourable regulations than those prescribed by the DGCA. Any flight that was eight hours long required at least two crew members; flights between eight and 10 hours required three crew members; and those beyond 10 hours required multiple crew members. Pilots were bound by Air India's Standing Order rather than the less pilot-friendly DGCA rules, the pilot said. A senior Air India pilot said things, however, changed dramatically after the strike by pilots in April-May 2003. The severe shortage of flying crew in the early years of this decade — which pilots attribute to “poor manpower planning,” probably played a role in Air India tightening the screws on the pilots, he said.

Air India sources said Indian airline companies, including Air India, wanted flights to Europe beyond Frankfurt, which would require 10 hours of flying, to be manned by a two-member crew. In 2008, a “dispensation” was issued by the DGCA, which specifically allowed Air India to reach London with a two-member crew, instead of three members as prescribed by the FDTL of 1992. “For about one-and-a-half years, this dispensation was specifically issued for Air India; later, it was extended to other airlines,” said a commercial pilot with Air India.

Pilots say that in July 2007 the DGCA did try attempt a “comprehensive overhaul of the FDTL that would set on a more scientific basis, but was thwarted by the airline industry.” “In effect, the new regulations would have required airline companies to employ more pilots per aircraft,” said a pilot. In 2008, when the pilots filed a petition in the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Civil Aviation assured the court that a scientifically designed FDTL would be in place in six months.

Responding to the claims made by Union Minister for Civil Aviation Praful Patel and Arvind Jadhav, Chairman and Managing Director of Air India, that airlines are within the bounds of regulations on flying time, a pilot said: “They may be technically right, but our point is that the law is bad both in letter and in spirit.”

There is no doubt that pilots consider workplace regulations to be not only unscientific but also loaded in favour of airline companies. Commercial interests, they say, have been allowed to influence the regulatory regime governing working conditions of pilots.

The disaster at Mangalore is a clear indication that airline pilots' working conditions are no longer a bilateral issue to be sorted out between the airlines and their employees. At stake are very important issues of public interest, including those related to public safety.

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