Airlines world over make huge investments to hone the skills of pilots in their quest for the maintenance of high safety standards.
It is therefore incomprehensible that an astounding number of pilots of Indian carriers – 181 to be precise, as per statement made in Parliament, failed the mandatory breathalyser test prior to operating flights during the three year period 2015-18.
Pilots, in the course of their exhaustive training, are made to realise the significance of safety; that lives of hundreds of passengers depend on them, etc. Why do some of them then behave so immaturely and irresponsibly so as to fail the mandatory breathalyser test?
It’s a question that has defied a satisfactory response because the number of instances of pilots failing the test hasn’t shown any appreciable decline during the recent years and India’s track record continues to be more abysmal than most other countries.
Even if it is argued that while instances of pilots reporting in a drunken state year after year in absolute number may not have shown a decline, the reality of it going down as a percentage of flights operated cannot be overlooked. This is because the number of flights operated in these years has gone up significantly, as has the number of pilots in various airlines.
What is, however, perplexing is that even the tightening of action by the regulatory agency, the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), has apparently failed to make the pilots understand the gravity of their lackadaisical approach.
As per new regulations introduced by the DGCA in 2015, more as a consequence of India’s safety rating downgrade by the Federal Aviation Administration of USA in the previous year, to curb the menace, all flights are now mandatorily covered through pre-flight checks whereas earlier checks were conducted only at random.
The punishment too has been made more stringent. Suspension of flying licence for the first instance of violation and revocation of licence for three years for a repeat offence.
Considering that pilots earn between Rs 3-8 lakh a month depending on their seniority, suspension of flying licence does translate into a huge financial punitive loss for them, but it seemingly is still failing to act as a deterrent.
It is imperative to dispel the often-cited, hastily drawn, conclusion that had the pilots not been stopped from operating the flight on failing the breathalyser test it would have resulted in a tragedy.
The breathalyser tests are stringent as even negligible traces of alcohol in breath result in pilots being kept away from operating the flight. The pilot unions have always termed these standards as too stringent, but their reservation is only to be expected considering whose interests they seek to represent and protect.
Rule 24 of the Aircraft Rules states “No person acting as, or carried in aircraft for the purpose of acting as pilot, commander, navigator, engineer, cabin crew or the other operating member of the crew thereof, shall have taken or used any alcoholic drink, sedative, narcotic, or stimulant drug preparation within 12 hours of the commencement of the flight...”
Pilots failing breathalyser test is also not a phenomenon restricted to India alone. Nineteen pilots of Japan Airlines since August 2018 have failed the breathalyser test forcing the airline to ban alcohol consumption 24 hours before a flight, instead of the earlier 12 hours.
Likewise, a Singapore Airlines pilot failed a random breathalyser test before captaining a transcontinental flight from Melbourne, Australia, to Wellington, New Zealand, three months ago. The flight had to be cancelled resulting in inconvenience to passengers because at foreign locations substitute pilots are not available.
DGCA may perhaps need to emulate the example of Japan Airlines because restrictions need to be guided by ground realities as they exist in India and not global benchmarks.
The argument that our current 12-hour ban is already higher than the eight-hour ban that exists for pilots in Europe and the USA can’t be held as merited because the problem needs to be curbed as the safety of passengers is paramount.
There are some who argue that the problem of pilots failing the breathalyser test is a consequence of stress caused by increasingly busy schedules as airlines expand operations, but it lacks credibility.
A more plausible reason could be our social environment where good-monied life means partying and partying can’t be without the liquor flowing freely. No one would grudge the pilots enjoying the way they would like to but it can’t be at the expense of the safety of passengers!