Flight Plan

Piloting a new normal to take people places

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on June 23, 2020

Changing times From pre-flight preparation at home to donning sanitisation suit to spending less time at the airport, the pilot now has a new schedule PTI   -  A S

The routine has changed completely for pilots, to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic. Ashwini Phadnis details the processes in place

Some of us have already experienced how flying has changed ever since limited domestic flights were allowed on May 25. Equally significant have been the changes for the cockpit crew. And like fliers, cockpit crew members too are getting used to the new normal.

As with passengers, for pilots too, the new normal kicks in even before they reach the airport and carries on at the destination airport as well.

Change starts at home

While fliers have to do check-in and get printouts of their boarding cards and baggage tags before they leave for the airport, pilots at IndiGo spend time at home reading the documents that they will need for the flight three hours before the flight time.

This is being done to ensure that the pilots do not spend unnecessary time in the flight dispatch section at the airport.

According to Captain Ashim Mittra, Senior Vice-President, Flight Operations, IndiGo, this helps save a “good 20 to 25 minutes” at the airport. The dress code for pilots has changed too. To the earlier tie and cap have been added face masks and shields and gloves.

The way the pilots are driven to the airport has changed as well. Says Captain Mittra, “In the normal course, the driver would come, may be you would chat with him, put on your seat belt and go. Now, we have a screen that is like a divider or a sort of a cabin for the driver. It is a plastic screen and half the air-conditioning goes to the driver and half to the pilot.”

Quicker pushback

Once pilots reach the airport, their flight bags are sanitised using ultra violet rays and their Aarogya Setu apps checked for body temperature. Here, the pilots take off their face masks for a fraction of a second and display the airport entry pass.

“The CISF has to identify that the person walking in uniform is the one who is the holder of the airport pass,” explains Captain Rajesh Malik, Chief Pilot A-320 fleet, Vistara.

He adds that the only other time that the pilots briefly remove the mask is at the security or departure gate so that security can identify them.

Captain Malik also says that the airline has increased the reporting time for cockpit crew members for domestic flights to 90 minutes, from 60 minutes earlier. This is in compliance with the Standard Operation Procedures that the crew should be able to complete the pre-flight requirements and be in the cockpit before boarding is announced, so that social distancing norms are maintained.

Gone are the days when the cockpit crew would have a one-on-one meeting with the cabin attendants. Now they use the interphone for this conversation. On IndiGo flights, the flight deck doors remain closed from the time passengers board till they disembark. Only one crew member is permitted to interact with the pilots at any given time, keeping the area non-congested.

The flight deck is also disinfected whenever pilots change or as required between flights. This is done in the presence of one of the airline’s pilots or engineers and records are maintained.

Captains Malik and Mittra agree that the pushback of the aircraft has become quicker unless another aircraft parked close by asks for pushback at the same time.

“Most definitely, with the traffic going down, it (pushback) is faster. But there are a lot of aircraft parked on the taxi track or in the bays that are probably not being used, so there have been instances in the last three departures of a slight delay of seven to eight minutes. Fortunately or unfortunately we were parked in adjoining bays where others requested for pushback before us. So, we cannot say there are no delays but there are fewer delays for sure,” Captain Malik points out.

Captain Mittra adds that earlier a plane could be number five in the pushback sequence. However, when a pilot asks for a pushback now, he is either number one or two. This means that both the aircraft and fliers have to wait for less time before taking off.

Minimal layover

In another safety measure, both IndiGo and Vistara are trying to ensure that the layover for crew is minimal.

Captain Mittra says flights have been designed in such a way that most of them are quick-return flights. “Say, you start from Delhi, fly to Coimbatore and then you fly to Chennai and back to Delhi, thereby avoiding layovers as far as possible,” Captain Mittra says.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, pilots were allowed an overnight layover in another city. At the moment, such flight scheduling is possible as airlines are flying at only about 33 per cent of their capacity. But airlines like Vistara are clear that this is likely to change sooner rather than later as things return to normal.

“We will have to accept that this is going to exist for a while but life has to come back to normalcy with some precautions. As of today, it (layover) is not there but if you call me after, say, about two weeks, you will have a different version. That is what we are planning and looking at,” says Captain Malik.

Published on June 23, 2020

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