India’s airline pilots: fatigue reports prompt safety worries

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With Indian airline pilots complaining about the risk of fatigue from their work schedules, concerns are rising about the safety implications of the government delaying the introduction of more stringent controls on shift hours and rest periods.

Last August, a 40-year-old IndiGo pilot died minutes before operating the airline's Nagpur–Pune flight. He passed away after collapsing near a boarding gate at Nagpur airport. He was taken to KIMS–Kingsway Hospital, where he was declared dead upon arrival, said airport director Abid Ruhi.

A spokesperson for the hospital said it appeared that the pilot had died due to “sudden cardiac arrest”.

According to officials, Captain Manoj Subramanyam fell unconscious in the security hold area of the airport around 12 noon. The airline said the previous day he had been part of the flight crew for two sectors, Trivandrum-Pune-Nagpur, during early morning, between 3am and 7am. He then had 27 hours of rest and was rostered to operate four sectors on that day, including the Nagpur–Pune sector, which would have been his first rostered shift for the day, the airline added.

A day earlier another senior pilot died while flying as a passenger on a Qatar Airways flight from Delhi to Doha. The pilot, who was employed by Qatar Airways and was one of the flight crew on the inaugural flight of the SpiceJet airline in 2003, fell ill on board. Although the flight was diverted to Dubai in a bid to seek medical assistance, he could not be saved.

Meanwhile, in November 2023, a 37-year-old Air India pilot died while on duty at Delhi Airport’s Terminal 3. According to an official, the pilot was undergoing training to allow him to fly planes from the Boeing 777 fleet. “He was at the airport as a part of his training, which included an aircraft visit. He felt uneasy and was taken to Medanta Hospital’s facility within the airport but didn’t survive,” the official said.

According to media reports, the pilot suffered a suspected cardiac arrest, and although a doctor at the hospital performed CPR, he couldn’t be saved.

Photo: iStock, credit MangoStar_Studio

Widespread concerns
News of the deaths of two on-duty pilots in the space of just three months prompted renewed concerns among flight crew, airline safety experts and the media about stress and fatigue among flight crew employed by Indian airlines on domestic routes.

Commenting on the death of the Air India pilot at Delhi Airport, Shakti Lumba, former VP of operations at IndiGo airline, said on X (formerly Twitter): “Another young Indian pilot passes away today due to a suspected cardiac event on ground.

"If this doesn’t convince DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation), civil aviation ministry and airlines of the urgent need to reduce stress, fatigue and anxiety amongst pilots nothing else will.”

According to a Reuters news report in August 2023, Captain Subramanyam’s death at Nagpur airport resulted in other pilots complaining about fatigue and stress allegedly caused by demanding work schedules. Some flight crew members claimed that airlines, “though operating within regulatory frameworks, are stretching them to the brink”, reported Reuters.

Flight crew fatigue and exhaustion are seen as major contributory factors to human error in aircraft operations, which can lead to catastrophic accidents. Also, fatigue and exhaustion can be dangerous for the health of the crew. 

In April 2024, Vistara pilots alleged the airline was treating them as “bonded labourers” and alleged the company’s human resources department had threatened them with severe consequences due to their opposition to planned changes to their contracts. Two unions representing Air India employees extended their support to the Vistara pilots, who are striking over multiple issues.

Vistara is a 51:49 joint venture of Tata Group and Singapore Airlines. Air India is a completely owned airline of the Tata Group, and Vistara is in the process of being merged into Air India.

“The issues of 70 hours fixed remuneration, approval of leaves, adequate rest periods, unstable roster, stretching pilots to maximum flight duty, botched roster practices and an unsupportive work environment are consistently echoed by pilots across different Tata Group airlines,” the unions said.

From 1–3 April, Vistara was forced to cancel over 125 flights, allegedly due to a specific group of pilots taking sudden sick leave at the end of March to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with proposed new rosters and a new salary structure.

The airline typically operates about 350 flights a day.

“Pilots are being subjected to conditions and treatment reminiscent of bonded labourers,” the two unions added. “There have been instances where human resources resorted to threatening pilots with potential disruptions to their future, accompanied by severe consequences. Threatening pilots with disruptions to their future is not only unethical but also creates a hostile and intimidating work environment.”

Difficult schedules
In recent years, pilots employed by Indian airlines have repeatedly complained of stress and fatigue due to difficult rostering schedules, alleging they are sometimes required to work back-to-back night shifts without sufficient rest.

According to a Reuters report, pilots have also complained about the impact of erratic flight schedules on their fatigue and stress levels, and there are concerns that maximum duty (i.e. flight) times for Indian pilots working night shifts are not as stringent as those in countries like the USA.

The Times of India also reported that pilots regularly complain that flight rosters are allocated in such a way that they are away from their home base for days on end.

Following public debate about the possible role fatigue played in the death of the IndiGo pilot Captain Subramanyam in August 2023, in January this year the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) announced a host of measures aimed at addressing concerns about alleged pilot fatigue and overwork. These included increasing the mandatory weekly rest period for flight crew from 36 to 48 hours, increasing the official ‘night period’ by an hour and limiting maximum flight time and duty periods to eight hours and 10 hours, respectively. The DGCA said the changes would play a pivotal role in managing fatigue-related safety risks in aviation and ensure India’s aviation industry procedures are better-aligned with global best practice.

“These changes – that are very much in line with international best practices – will ensure India has the necessary arsenal, as it prepares to clinch the largest domestic aviation market title in the future,” said civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia in a post on X.

Review of pilot fatigue data
The revised regulations were announced months after the DGCA decided to conduct a review of pilot fatigue data collected during spot checks and surveillance of airlines, following the death of the Indigo pilot in August 2023.

However, in March deferred the implemenation of revised flight duty norms for pilots after the Federation of Indian Airlines (FIA) – which comprises IndiGo, Air India and SpiceJet – requested the new rules be postponed by a year. The FIA had said that carriers would have to cut capacity by 15–20 per cent if the new rules, announced in January, were implemented from 1 June, as originally proposed. The airlines aid that this was due, in part, to the need to recruit additional pilots to make up the staffing shortfall arising from the planned shorter maximum flying hours of crews.

According to sources, the decision to defer the norms stemmed from the need to conduct wider consultation.
This April, the DGCA wrote to Indian airlines requesting details of when they will be ready to implement the proposed flight duty time limitation regulations aimed at preventing pilot fatigue. The DGCA said that, because pilots have mounted a legal challenge against the decision to defer their implementation, Delhi High Court had ordered the aviation regulator to provide a “tentative” date for their implementation at a court hearing scheduled for May.

According to The Times of India, the DGCA had initially turned down a request from the airlines to delay the 1 June implementation deadline for the proposed flight duty time limitation regulations, before the central government’s Ministry of Aviation ordered the implementation to be delayed indefinitely.

Meanwhile, in a separate move that potentially indicates a willingness by the aviation authorities to take pilot fatigue more seriously, in March 2024 the DGCA fined Air India $95,000 (Rs 80 lakh) for violating crew rest rules, finding the airline had breached official flight time limitations.

Air India was also found to be failed to provide adequate weekly rest, sufficient rest before and after ultra-long range flights and adequate rest during layovers for the flight crew.

During an audit, the DGCA also found other violations, such as two co-pilots operating a flight being over the age of 60, erroneously marked training records and duty overlaps.

Under International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules, if one pilot is aged 60 or above, the co-pilot must be under 60. Other rules include pilots over 60 being prohibited from undertaking single pilot flight operations and undergoing a medical every six months.

Liberalisation of the industry
In India, liberalisation of the aviation industry has led to rapid growth in air travel. Before liberalisation, air travel in India was a luxury, only accessible to the affluent few. Today, however, India has become the third-largest domestic flight market in the world, behind only the United States and China, with more people choosing to travel by air than ever before. In the last decade, the number of operational airports in the country has risen from 74 to 140, and the government plans to develop and operationalise 220 airports in the next five years. 

Jyotiraditya Scindia, central government Minister for Civil Aviation and Steel, told Reuters that the government wants India, the world's most populous country, to become a global aviation hub and foresees “an explosion of air traffic”.

This rapid growth of the sector came after the Indian government opened up the aviation industry to private players in the 1990s, which led to the entry of several new airlines. Today, there are several major players in the Indian aviation industry, including IndiGo, SpiceJet, Air India and Vistara.

Although liberalisation has ushered in the development of new business models – such as the emergence of low-cost carriers like IndiGo and SpiceJet and new employment models – serious concerns have emerged about operators allegedly using legal crew flight-time limits as goals rather than maximum limits to be avoided if possible, despite alleged high levels of fatigue. Known in the industry as ‘pilot pushing’, this allegedly means exerting pressure on pilots to maximise productivity and keep flying as many sectors as possible.

As a result, a number of professional pilots in India have reported suffering from severe fatigue, with some reporting significant sleep problems and burnout. Reports also indicate a majority of pilots keep flying despite fatigue and mental health conditions. Surveys have shown how working conditions, schedules, work-related and psychosocial stress, sleep problems and fatigue can affect pilots’ mental health, mood and wellbeing.

Experts point out that the most commonly known reason for fatigue is lack of sleep, but lack of quality sleep, sleep disturbance, interruption of circadian rhythm, mental or emotional stress, physical exertion, such as heavy exercise, and poor health, including dehydration or poor diet, can cause fatigue.

“Pilots have been reporting multiple sleep problems associated with flight duties and layovers,” said an IndiGo pilot, on the condition of anonymity. “Fatigue and sleep problems are associated with symptoms of depression and impaired pilot wellbeing.”


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