COVID Kills 5 Air India Pilots, But No Insurance Beyond Rs 10 Lakh

“I am scared to fly, what if something happens to me? Who’ll look after my family financially?” asks an AI pilot.

5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>From left to right: Captain GPS Gill, Captain Prasad Karmakar, Captain Sandeep Rana, Captain Amitesh Prasad (top right), Captain Harsh Tiwary.</p></div>

In the tsunami of COVID-19's second wave in India, five senior Air India pilots - Captain Amitesh Prasad, Captain Prasad Karmakar, Captain Sandeep Rana, Captain G P S Gill and Captain Harsh Tiwary - succumbed in May, 2021. The youngest of them, Captain Harsh Tiwary, was just 36.

But do you know that the insurance schemes provided by the Air India to its pilots, do not cover COVID-19 deaths?

The next of kin of these five pilots will get ONLY Rs 10 Lakh as compensation in the case of COVID-19 related deaths, as announce by the Air India management in March 2020.

In fact, Captain Harsh Tiwary's family will only get Rs 5 Lakh as compensation because he was on contract and not a permanent employee.

On condition of anonymity a few serving pilots of Air India spoke to The Quint expressing their fear, anger and sense of insecurity about this.

“I was supposed to fly on the day that I heard about Captain Amitesh’s death due to COVID. My spouse repeatedly requested me not to go, not to fly. Till then hadn’t taken a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine. But how could I refuse to go on my duty. I had to show up, although I was scared.”
An AIr India Pilot

The Indian Pilots’ Guild wrote multiple letters in April 2021 to the Health Minister Harsh Vardhan and to the Chairman and Managing Director of Air India to consider pilots as frontline workers and start vaccinating them. But the vaccine drive for pilots started only on 15 May - by then four pilots had lost their lives due to COVID between 9-14 May.

“My spouse and I, both are pilots at Air India. We are scared what if something happens to either of us. Who will look after our children.”
Air India Pilot

These pilots also explained the clauses of Accident and Licence Insurances provided by the Air India and why it will does not cover COVID deaths.

What is Licence Insurance?

Our job depends on our being medically fit to fly. Our average medical standards are different from other jobs, more or less equivalent to medical checks for Indian Air Force pilots. We have licence insurance because if a pilot is unable to fly due to health issues in the middle of his/her career then this insurance can look after the financial needs. All permanent employees of Air India are covered under the Licence Insurance. The insurance gives a cover of Rs 1.2 crore to pilots and Rs 85 lakh to co-pilots.

Under what circumstances can a pilot avail Licence Insurance money?

Under two circumstances - Temporary Medically Unfit (TMU) and Permanently Medically Unfit (PMU).

In case of TMU, the pilot will be eligible for a monthly payment which will be 1% of his/her licence insurance cover, i.e, Rs 1.2 Lakh per month. For instance, if a pilot fractures a limb, or suffers from hypertension, he/she might be declared temporarily unfit to fly which could be for 2-3 months or more. The temporary ailment should be of more than a month to qualify for TMU.

In case of PMU, the pilot is declared permanently unfit to fly. For instance, if a pilot is diagnosed with cancer, even if he/she survives the illness, medically he/she may no longer be fit to fly. In such a scenario he/she will be eligible for the full amount of insurance.

A pilot can avail of PMU only if he/she is declared permanently unfit by the management while alive. The family cannot claim it after the pilot’s death.


Will any of the pilots who’ve succumbed to COVID-19 be eligible for Licence Insurance?

No. Because none of them were either declared temporarily or permanently unfit.

Will these pilots be eligible for Accident Insurance?

Again, no. A pilot gets accident insurance only if he/she dies while travelling in an office vehicle between his/her residence to the airport or office. Only then will a pilot’s kin get accident insurance money.


Will a pilot get Accident Insurance if he dies in an air crash while on duty?

Pilot’s kin will get accident insurance only if it is proven that the flight did not crash due to pilot’s fault. If the management proves that the crash was due to pilot error, the family will not get accident insurance.

The management rarely accepts that a crash happened due to technical error. It is very easy to blame the pilot because he/she is not there to defend themselves, while the aircraft manufacturing company can do so.

Again if a flight is hijacked then everyone gets killed, in that case the family will get compensation.

We do not get any life insurance from Air India which would cover death under any and all circumstances.

Do pilots feel unsafe flying now because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Over the past month, every day in our group chat we read about a pilot’s death or about someone admitted in the hospital or someone testing positive. It is very nerve racking. Our family members are telling us not to fly but we have no option because we cannot work from home.


Do you think it was a mistake by Air India to not declare pilots and cabin crew members as frontline workers?

Definitely. Vaccination would have made a difference and provided some safety to us.

My spouse is an Air India pilot. He was on flights carrying India’s vaccines to different countries. Immigration officers in those countries were so thankful to him. He told us after returning home that he wished he could tell those people that he really wants these vaccines back in India for his own family and others. My husband was not vaccinated till then, he was right there in a different country exposing himself without vaccine.

As you were flying international flights, were you worried about carrying foreign COVID-19 variants back to India?

I was flying to UK and many other countries where the second wave had already hit. I knew the second wave would come to India as well, but here people were busy in festivals and elections. I was even more worried because I did not even get a single dose of vaccine back then.

We had been raising the issue of vaccinating pilots and crew members with the management. In reply they would say, half the doctors and healthcare workers are not taking vaccine, why do you need it. But we really wanted to take the vaccine, which they did not understand.


What COVID precautions do you take while flying?

It is very difficult to take full precautions while flying. Inside a cockpit we sit very close, we often touch same buttons, it is not possible to sanitise buttons frequently. Sometimes it becomes difficult to understand the co-pilot due to the masks. Also, international flights are very long, because of which viral load increases inside the aircraft.

What are the challenges for pilots?

As a pilot we cannot stop flying for long, otherwise my ratings will lapse. I have to keep actively flying to protect my licence from expiring. I cannot quit Air India because the aviation industry is shrinking and I might not get another job. Nor can I change my profession.

When approached by The Quint, the Air India refused to comment on this issue.

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