Apex court restores strenuous duty roster for pilots

July 10th, 2008 - 9:12 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, July 10 (IANS) The Supreme Court Thursday restored a rather strenuous duty roster of 1992 that requires pilots to undertake up to three fights within their nine-hour daily duty schedule. A bench of Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan restored the 1992 duty roster for pilots, suspending a Bombay High Court order which had July 1 implemented a duty roster requiring pilots to undertake only two flights during their daily duty schedule before earning a rest period of six hours.

The new relaxed duty schedule for pilots, involving a maximum of two takeoffs and two landings within nine hours, was chalked out by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in 2007 after a mandatory consultation on the issues like flight safety norms and crew fatigues.

The new schedule was in operation since August 2007 with due approval of the civil aviation ministry.

But Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel junked the pilots’ relaxed duty roster “overnight” May 29 following representation from various airlines, including the private ones.

The new duty schedule was put aside on the grounds that it was causing financial losses to the aviation sector as airlines were required to hire around 35 percent more pilots to continue their operations.

The high court suspended the ministerial order on a plea by pilots’ organisation, the Joint Action Committee of Airlines Pilots’ Associations of India, which pointed out to the high court that the 30 percent of the accidents worldwide are caused due to pilots’ fatigue that impairs their motor action and decision making power.

“It appears that DGCA had acted on the dictates of the concerned honourable minister without application of mind and in a most arbitrary and irrational manner” in suspending the relaxed duty norms for pilots, said the high court in its July 1 ruling.

But the apex court bench, which also included Justices P. Sathasivam and J.M. Panchal, suspended the high court order on an urgent, joint lawsuit by the ministry, the DGCA and the National Aviation Company of India Limited (NACIL), formed after the merger of Air India and Indian airlines.

Solicitor General Goolam E. Vahanvati, appearing for the ministry, and eminent jurist Fali S. Nariman, appearing for DGCA, sought suspension of the high court’s order and contend that the pilots’ claim of a link between air accidents and the crew fatigue had no rational or scientific basis.

“Flying airplanes does not mean driving trucks,” contended senior counsel Harish Salve, appearing for a private airline. He pointed out that the modern avionics techniques have advanced so much that planes over a certain altitude are flown in the auto-pilot mode, requiring no strenuous work from pilots.

Vahanvati argued that the minister had suspended the relaxed duty norms for the pilots on the representation from various airlines, including government-owned NACIL, which pointed out how the new schedule was adversely affecting their operations.

They said the new duty schedule was leading to shortage of pilots and affecting their prior scheduling of flights.

The high court, however, rejected this contention earlier, saying: “If the grievances of these airlines operators is acute shortage of trained pilots, then the solution obviously is to reduce the number of flights and certainly not to increase the duty hours of the pilots.”

“To increase their business profits, the airline operators surely cannot go on increasing the umber of flights indiscriminately disproportionate to the available infrastructure and claim that duty of hours of the pilots and the crew be increased,” the high court ruled.

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