Air India senior pilot, engineer succumb to Covid

MUMBAI: Air India lost two of its employees, senior commander Capt Amitesh Prasad, who was hospitalised with Covid early this month and Johnson Tirkey, a Kolkata-based aircraft maintenance engineer, both of whom passed away on Sunday morning.
Though Air India pilots and employees worked right through lockdown last year and continued to do so in the following months, operating Vande Bharat Mission flights to bring in Indians stranded in other countries, the staff were not put on the priority list for Covid vaccination. Despite being front line workers, several pilots, cabin crew, engineers and other ground staff are still to get vaccinated for Covid, even as they go about their daily duties at airports.
The 57-year old, Mumbai-based Capt Prasad, a commander on Boeing 777 aircraft breathed his last at 1.30 am in K J Somaiya Hospital, Sion, said a message that was circulated among Air India pilots group. Captain Prasad’s wife too is hospitalised with Covid.
Even as grief and disbelief spread among Air India pilots, other news of deaths due to Covid did rounds on employee groups. “Retired Air India pilot, Capt Farooq Nawaz from Kolkata is no more,’’ said a message. “We have also lost Johnson Tirkey, a Kolkata based aircraft maintenance engineer due to Covid related complications..” said another message. The 41-year old passed away at 6.15 am on Sunday morning.
Neither were the pilots nor other ground staff like engineers, airport staff given priority vaccination. Indian Commercial Pilots Association, an Air India pilots’ union threatened to stop work last week over this issue. Air India announced that the airline had been planning a vaccination drive and waited till May 1 so that all employees, including those under the age of 45 years, could qualify for the shots. The airline said that it plans to complete vaccination for its employees by May end.
According to airline sources, several Air India pilots and cabin crew have been testing positive for Covid in the past few months. “We are in no position to continue risking the lives of our pilots without vaccination,” stated the letter sent by Captain T Praveen Keerthi, general secretary, Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association (ICPA), to Capt R S Sandhu, AI director (operations), last week. “Many crews have been diagnosed Covid positive and are struggling to get oxygen cylinders. We are left to fend for ourselves for hospitalization…”
The Covid deaths are not limited to Air India employees. In the past few weeks, there has been news of pilots and engineers working for private airlines too succumbing to Covid. Said a senior commander: “Airline staff have been carrying out critical jobs since the outbreak last year. During the lockdown, our pilots flew to foreign countries, risking their lives, to bring in Indians stranded abroad. We operated freighters to transport medicines and now vaccines, oxygen concentrators. Air transport is such an essential service during these times. Pilots working with private airlines have been transporting vaccines, oxygen concentrators, medicines on domestic flights. While the government has been all praises about Vande Bharat Mission flights and other flight operations during the pandemic, there was not a single word on vaccinating the people who risk their lives to operate these flights. We are losing our pilots, engineers and ground staff now to Covid. ”