Rumble in the cockpit as DGCA defers new rest rules

Indian pilots are resenting the Directorate General of Civil Aviation’s (DGCA) decision to defer the implementation of the new rules on pilot duty and rest period, pointing to fatigue-induced safety concerns.

The Federation of Indian Pilots (FIP), which has more than 5,000 members, has told the aviation regulator this decision endangers and undermines the safety of pilots and passengers.

“The latest revision by the DGCA has made the revised regulations a dead letter of the law as it has effectively granted operators discretionary powers in implementing the revised rules,” the FIP wrote in a letter to civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia. “Health and safety of the pilots cannot be prejudiced for the commercial benefit of the operators,” said the letter dated March 28 and reviewed by ET.

Earlier this week, DGCA put the new rules in indefinite abeyance after facing severe resistance from airlines that warned the rules will force them to cancel 20% of the flights at the peak of the summer travel season.

DGCA’s reversal of position came within days after the regulator itself acknowledged the fatigue of pilots as a concern. The regulator had said that the multiple incidents of death of pilots due to punishing schedules should serve as urgent wake-up calls.

People aware of the development said that DGCA’s decision to withhold the new rules came after the Ministry of Civil Aviation decided that cancellation of flights during the peak summer season would lead to public furore immediately after the takeover of a new government.

The Federation of Indian Airlines, a group that counts IndiGo and Air India as among its members, had said that there wasn’t enough consultation with the industry before putting in the rest rules for pilots. It added that the rules were more restrictive than anywhere in the world and would make the Indian aviation industry less competitive than other countries.

Pilots, however, said that airlines indulge in malpractice while preparing their duty schedules, leading to mental stress and cumulative fatigue for a significant portion of the crew.

“Operators might publish rosters, but in practice, these are only nominal. Crew members are compelled to review their rosters every evening, even during rest periods or days off, and are mandated to accept daily changes or risk facing disciplinary measures,” FIP said. “DGCA should conduct a quarterly audit of duty rosters to prevent this.”

Airline officials said that the regulator, instead of prescribing uniform rules for all airlines, should allow them to implement their own Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS).

FRMS is a process where airlines collect data and analyse them using software to monitor fatigue among their pilots. Global aviation watchdog ICAO also prescribes the use of FRMS against the traditional approach of regulators prescribing limits.

“A one-size-fits-all rule is not ideal as operations differ from each other. Airlines like IndiGo and Air India have invested heavily in software like the Boeing Alertness Model, which is suited to study fatigue. The DGCA should take these practices into consideration,” said one of the airline executives cited above.

William Murphy

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