Air India pilots may have found a way to make more money by doing less work

Lapses and breaches.
Lapses and breaches.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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As if the Indian government’s failed efforts to sell a stake in Air India weren’t enough, the national carrier has now flown into another storm.

Air India is reportedly probing some of its pilots for gaming the duty roster to make extra money. Some senior officials, too, are being investigated in the matter.

The pilots are alleged to have manipulated a well-known company rule to make some quick extra bucks through unofficial agreements among themselves.

A New Delhi-based aviation consultant explained the alleged modus operandi: To incentivise its pilots, Air India ensures that all those who fly a minimum of 40 hours a month are officially deemed to have flown 70 hours instead. The airline then pays these pilots for 70 hours. Now, some pilots manipulate this rule by flying only 40 hours and passing the extra 30 hours to another pilot. This other pilot then adds the first pilot’s 30 hours to his or her own 70 official hours. The second pilot is obviously paid for 100 hours of flying. This means the airline is effectively paying the two pilots for 170 cumulative hours although the two only flew 140 hours.

An Air India spokesperson told Quartz that this is an administrative issue and the airline is looking into it.

“There has been a problem in the past, too, because of this rule,” Mark Martin, founder and CEO at Martin Consulting, told Quartz. “The rostering rule itself is dubious. Rules have been modified and changed more than twice.”

Meanwhile, the Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association (ICPA), which represents over 800 Air India pilots who operate the narrow-body Airbus fleet, has asked Air India to probe all its pilots, including the ones that fly Boeing aircraft. In a letter written to the airline, the ICPA has blamed gross mismanagement in the roster system for the variation in flying hours, the Press Trust of India reported.

“If Air India feels that the current duty-hour rules are affecting the finances of the airline, then the restrictive ‘flight duty time limitation’ with 90 hours per month of flying should be reintroduced with immediate effect,” the letter said.

According to another aviation consultant who didn’t want to be named, Air India suffers from an acute shortage of pilots and the 1,800 it has now are just not enough. “There’s an increasing need to push pilots to fly more,” the consultant said.

The airline must look at some international models and come up with a new method to prepare pilots’ rosters and pay them, analysts observed. “A working committee set up by the aviation ministry and the pilots’ guild should come up with a new working model,” Martin said.