Landmark judgment: Court strikes down stretched duty hours for pilots

Topics DGCA | Pilots

In a landmark judgment, the Delhi High Court on Wednesday struck down a law which allowed commercial airline operators to change stipulated working hours for pilots. The ruling can have wide ramifications over pilots’ working hours in India and will require airlines to change the work pattern for their pilots.

The ruling came after a petition filed by a Kerala-based lawyer Yeshwanth Shenoy alleged that Indian aviation regulator DGCA’s law regarding Flight Duty Time Limitations (FDTL) violated rules, as it allowed airline companies to stretch the duty hours of pilots resulting into fatigue to them.

“The court has asked DGCA should redesign the rules regarding pilots’ flight duty time and rest requirements and has given a time for one year to do that. In the interim, the court has asked DGCA to strictly implement the existing regulations minus the allowance of variations which allowed airlines to fix the guidelines according to their need,” Shenoy said. Business Standard has not seen the court order as it has yet not been uploaded on the court website.

FDTL which lays down pilots rest period in detail was implemented by DGCA in 2011 after pilot’s fatigue was found to be a reason behind the crash of an Air India Express flight  IX-812 leading to death of 158 passengers. This led to a detailed study done by a government committee under former DGCA boss Naseem Zaidi. The committee recommended that a flight crew should have 36 hours rest requirements free from all duties.

“Sleep and fatigue science has unequivocally established the role of adequate rest in mitigating fatigue,” the committee had said. DGCA followed it up with the guidelines which mandated strict rest period. For instance, a pilot flying between three to seven time zones during a long haul flight should have minimum 36 hours of rest before next flight. It also barred consecutive night operations between 12 AM- 5 AM.

However, the rules faced resistance from airline operators who said such rules will cause commercial loss. DGCA relented and inserted the variation clause. It inserted a clause which allowed variations to these regulations on the basis of a risk assessment provided by the airlines. Jet Airways, Air India soon followed with their own rules. The airlines said 20 hours of rest was enough after a pilot flies between three to seven time zones against 36 hours laid down by DGCA. IndiGo mandated that 144 hours per week was sufficiently less than the DGCA mandated 168 hours.

“Flight duty working hours are based on scientific studies but on what basis did the airlines come up with their own working hours are unknown,” said Sam Thomas, president of Airline Pilots Association of India (ALPA) which has over 1,000 pilots as member. Thomas has simultaneously filed an affidavit asking why DGCA is permitting such dispensations to airlines.

Senior airline executives handling airline operations stated that they will review the scheduling pattern of pilots after DGCA comes with an order. “Yes, some changes will be required in rostering. Airlines will need to increase their bench strength to have pilots for standby. Since most airlines rostering is automated nowadays, we will carry out changes in software as and when we get the instruction from DGCA,” a private airline executive said. Jet Airways, Air India and IndiGo did not respond to queries.


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