Air India crew members are being provided with substandard, ill-fitting and flimsy personal protective equipment (PPE) on special flights being operated during the lockdown, a union of the airline's pilots complained to Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri on Monday.
With India under a 21-day lockdown till April 14 to curb the spread of coronavirus, all domestic and international commercial passenger flights have been suspended for this period.
However, carriers such as Air India have been permitted by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to fly special flights to transport test kits, medicines, relief material and Indians coming from abroad or foreigners going to their countries.
"Our pilots and cabin crew are being provided substandard, ill-fitting and flimsy PPE that tear/disintegrate easily on rescue flights. Sanitisers are not provided in sufficient quantities and disinfection processes are short of industry best practices," the Executive Pilots Association (EPA) said in a letter to Puri.
"These inadequacies compound the chances of viral exposure and equipment contamination - and may even lead to a community (Stage 3) transmission of COVID-19 infection within crew members, passengers and the public at large, since most reside in large residential societies," it said.
The EPA stated that Air India's medical services department has chosen to "lock its doors and wash its hands off" the flying crew amid the pandemic.
As the carrier's medical services department has decided to work from home and limit its services to just phone calls, the association requested the minister that the department's doctors, ambulances and infrastructure be made available 24x7 to support the flying crew.
"This is the minimum level of support expected from an organisation that sends its employees to a biohazard frontline," it added.
The union also requested Puri to issue directions so that at least one senior executive each from medical services, personnel and finance departments is onboard each special flight to boost the crew's morale and gain a better understanding of field requirements.
Taking senior executives of other departments on rescue flights would also lead to creation of more efficient work processes related to the COVID-19 crisis, "which are non-existent at this time", the EPA noted.
The union said there is no additional insurance policy to cover any risk related to COVID-19 for pilots and cabin crew members who are operating these rescue flights.
According to the union, families of pilots and crew members have been left "extremely anxious and vulnerable" as the insurance companies may invoke the force majeure clause in case there is mass COVID-19 outbreak to not pay any money.
Force majeure is a clause in contracts which frees the parties from liability or obligation on account of extraordinary event or circumstance beyond their control.
The EPA said, "Our flying-related allowances, comprising 70 per cent of our total emoluments, remain unpaid since January 2020... To add insult to injury, we have also recently been informed by our management of a substantial pay cut, while in the midst of the above mentioned COVID-19 rescue operations!"
During the last few weeks, Air India has operated multiple flights to coronavirus-hit cities such as Wuhan in China and Rome in Italy to bring back Indians stranded there.
Between Tuesday and Friday, the national carrier will be operating nine flights to Frankfurt from Delhi and Mumbai to fly back Germans who are stranded in India amid the coronavirus lockdown.
The number of coronavirus cases in India rose to 1,071 and the death toll climbed to 29 in India on Monday, according to the Union Health Ministry.
Air India will undertake eight flights on Tuesday to transport cargo across various cities of the country amid the 21-day lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic, said a senior airline official on Monday.
"As required by the civil aviation ministry, Air India would be conducting three flights using the same A320 aircraft on Mumbai-Delhi route, Delhi-Guwahati route and Guwahati-Mumbai route," the official stated.
The other three flights with cargo would be flying using another A320 aircraft on Delhi-Hyderabad route, Hyderabad-Chennai route and Chennai-Delhi route, the official noted.
As India is under a 21-day lockdown from March 25 to curb the spread of the coronavirus, all domestic and international commercial passenger flights have been suspended for this period.
However, cargo flights, special flights conducted with the approval of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), offshore helicopter operations and medical evacuation flights have been exempted from the flight ban.
The official from Air India stated: "Another A320 aircraft would be used to fly cargo from Chennai to Port Blair. The plane would return the same day to Chennai."
India is reeling under the coronavirus pandemic that has infected 1,171 people and killed 29 people till now in the country, according to the Union health ministry.