Air India’s troubles stretch from the balance sheet to the cockpit

Lapses and breaches.
Lapses and breaches.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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Pilots of India’s national carrier Air India are inviting unwanted publicity for the financially beleaguered airline.

India’s aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation today (Nov. 12) said it has suspended the flying licence of Air India’s director of operations, Arvind Kathpalia, for three years. On Sunday (Nov. 11), the senior pilot had failed a mandatory breath analyser test before he was to command a New Delhi-London flight. The director of operations is generally responsible for flight safety and training. Kathpalia is also a member of the carrier’s board, according to its website.

“In the case of Kathpalia being detected ‘BA (breath analyser) positive’ on Nov. 11, the privileges of his licence have been suspended for a period of three years as per the provisions of applicable regulations,” the DGCA said in a statement.

According to flying norms, crew members are prohibited from having any alcoholic drink 12 hours before flying.

Though reporting to fly after consuming alcohol is not a criminal offence under the Indian Aircraft Act, it can lead to a suspension of licence for three months for a first-time offender and three years for a second-time offender. In case of a third instance, a pilot’s licence is cancelled.

Kathpalia was suspended for three months in 2017 for allegedly refusing to take breathalyser tests.

The incident involving Kathpalia is not a lone one as far as Air India is concerned. In a response to a right to information query, Air India had stated last month that 58 of its pilots, in the past eight years, have been caught with alcohol in their blood right before they had to fly.

“Because Air India has state backing, its union has more muscle-flexing power. So there is a sort of an attitude that one can get away with anything, which is not so much in case of private airline companies,” an aviation sector analyst told Quartz on the condition of anonymity.

Kathpalia, however, denied being drunk. “It was 1:30 in the afternoon (when the test was conducted), only a bloody stark raving alcoholic is bloody drunk at 1:30 in the afternoon,” Kathpalia told the news agency Reuters. “I am going to contest this.” He has gone for a blood test with a private agency, the results of which are expected later.

Episodes like these are something the loss-making carrier can do without. Its pilots have received a lot of bad press lately.

In a separate incident, on Sunday, an Air India flight headed for Thailand’s Bangkok returned to New Delhi 30 minutes after take-off because the co-pilot missed the pre-flight breath analyser test.

Last month an Air India flight from the southern Indian city of Tiruchirappalli to Dubai sustained damages after hitting the airport wall during take off. The pilots have been grounded, pending investigation.

In September this year, an Air India flight from the south Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, to Male landed on the wrong runway in the Maldives.