In recent days, the aviation industry has been rocked by two developments. On January 8, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued a revised set of ‘flight duty time limitation guidelines’, laying down maximum weekly duty and minimum rest hours for pilots, in the interests of passenger safety. This has caused a flutter in the industry, holding up its implementation. More recently, Vistara Airlines ran into resistance from its pilots for enforcing a new salary contract which reduces the fixed part of their salary. These developments are not unrelated to each other.

The January 8 guidelines rightly take a considerate view of pilot fatigue (and its impact on passenger safety), allowing for more weekly rest periods vis-a-vis the April 2019 rules which are now in force. These rules were expected to come into effect in June, but their implementation has been ‘deferred’ without any clear explanation. Under the proposed new guidelines, weekly rest has been increased from 36 hours to 48 hours. Night duty has been enhanced by an hour from midnight to 6 am (5 am at present), which allows for pilots flying into the dawn and morning more time to recuperate. Flight time and landings have been adjusted for pilots moving across time zones. Airlines shall submit ‘quarterly fatigue reports’, including action taken on them. However, the permissible monthly flying time presumably remains the same at over 100 hours.

The DGCA appears to have been persuaded by the airlines that they need more time to adjust to the pilot-friendly norms, as they would have to recruit an estimated 15-20 per cent more pilots. India has about 770 aircraft and over 9,000 pilots, which implies that about 1,500 more pilots would be needed to fly the same number of flights if and when the new FDTL rules come into force. Opinions are divided within the industry on whether so many pilots can be recruited in six months (of which three have gone by). Even if there is some basis to the airlines’ plea, an extension of six months seems enough for recruiting the required pilots. Industry players should submit a transition plan. Passenger safety should be of utmost importance. Pilot training and hiring would have to be ramped up anyway to cope with fleet expansion plans of Air India and IndiGo.

Vistara pilots protested a new salary structure that aligns their package with industry counterparts. Their salary package is now tailored around 40 hours a month of flying, against 70 hours earlier. The reduction in fixed salary appears to be the sore point. Since pilots can still fly 100 hours a month (despite the proposed rules on rest), they stand to earn higher rates, over and above the package, as they approach the limit. Safety concerns stem not just from this motivation to log in more hours, but even more so from aircraft being up in the air for more than 12 hours in a day, cramping maintenance. The DGCA must review this ecosystem so that flying is safe, affordable and competitive. A sweatshop approach will not do, when labour is estimated to account for less than 10 per cent of an airline’s operational costs.