Gaurav Taneja, captain of Airbus A320 and a popular YouTuber, famous on Twitter as "flying beast" brought to fore violation of safety norms and non-compliance of DGCA's Covid-19 guidelines by AirAsia India, with videos and constant tweets standing up against the wrong practices followed onboard, compromising on the safety of passengers.
On June 14, whistleblower Gaurav Taneja tweets about his suspension from services at AirAsia India after #BoycottAirAsiaIndia trends on Twitter for bringing the suppressed facts to light and "for standing up for safe operations of an aircraft and its passengers". On June 16, putting all job security concerns to rest and not fearing the consequences of his action, Taneja decided to put up a video on YouTube titled "Reasons behind suspension from my pilot job".
AirAsia India insists on "Flap 3" landings at all times
In his video, he alleged that the airline has asked its pilots to perform 98% of landings in the "Flap 3" mode, which will also help save fuel. Also, if a pilot does not do 98% of his landings in "Flap 3" mode, then the airline will consider this non-abiding act, as a violation of its standard operating procedures (SOPs). Flaps are part of the wings of an aircraft used to create drag during landing or during the take-off of flights.
Citing an example of Imphal airport (with a 3.5 glide slope, and a hilly terrain it is extremely dangerous to ever use flap 3 as it takes a fraction of seconds for climatic conditions to change), Taneja said that, "here the plane lands more steeply in comparison to other airports when approaching a landing on the runway. When an aircraft comes down steeply, it needs to have a drag so that it remains slow, and the safety of passengers is paramount. Under these circumstances, it is required of a pilot to do a "flap-full" landing."
Vinod Kumar, CEO and Director Projects, Avajet said, "It is true that airlines do compromise on certain things which are not right according to the Airbus/Boeing flight operation manual. Despite knowing the fact that he may be blacklisted and barred from flying other airlines, it is a bold and courageous step by Gaurav Taneja to bring faulty practices followed by airlines to light, compromising on the safety standards. There are four mandatory manuals on aircraft which is to be carried by pilots on board in the flight deck; this is common for all airlines, irrespective of it being Boeing or Airbus."
However, in order to save fuel and achieve cost efficiency what do the airlines do? They advise pilots to opt for unsafe landing procedures and instruct them to follow "Flap 3" landings at most 98% times, without offering due consideration, if the landing mechanism is in the interest of passenger and crew safety or not. If something goes wrong during Flap 3 or 4 landings, then the blame falls directly on the pilot and not on the airline, for risking the safety of 180 passengers on board, in order to meet the business interests of saving costs on fuel.
Owing to negligence on part of the airline to comply with the health and safety guidelines, Taneja primarily raised the issue with higher authorities much early, but no solution was found. So he decided to not fly on March 24, a day before the lockdown began in full swing. On May 4, the company in question AirAsia India slapped a show-cause notice against Gaurav Taneja stating that the company incurred huge losses the very day, because of his absence in action and clear administration issues were labeled on him. The senior management at AirAsia India was particularly unhappy with Taneja for speaking up the truth on social media channels and pointing out safety lapses.
Gaurav Taneja replied to the show cause notice on May 6 before his lawyer came into the picture. On 30 May, another show cause notice was issued for the same stating three trivial reasons: 1: Missing in Action (MIA) 2: Wearing of Uniform while he left Delhi to reach Kanpur to be with his elderly parents and his 2 yr old kid. 3: An Authorisation Letter issued by the company.
Using post-COVID budget cuts as the reason for suspension from duties, Taneja's contract with AirAsia India was brought under the scanner because he dared to stand up against the management for lack of safety protocols followed.
Taneja's response to Suspension Order and Notice of Enquiry by Air Asia
In response to the suspension order and notice of enquiry by AirAsia India's people and culture department head, Ms. Anjali Chatterjee chose to remain silent. Taneja's legal aid Yeshwant Shenoy questioned the airline carrier on its suspension notice on the grounds of "acting in any manner inconsistent with the implied/express duties as a Captain during the course of his employment with the airlines." Further, no show-cause notice has been issued for a new allegation raised against Taneja for violation of "Group communication policy."
Also "no charges have been levelled and framed" against Taneja on which an enquiry can be conducted further while allowing him the time to appear for the Enquiry. In agreement with the conditions imposed on him pending enquiry, Taneja agreed "to not enter company premises or contact colleagues during the period until further enquiry, trusting that company would promptly pay his "subsistence allowance" on time."
Gaurav Taneja also brought to notice that his salary for the period of April and May were not paid, with the contract executed by AirAsia India against him. Also, his bonus payment of Rs 6 lakh which was due on April 1, 2020, has been forfeited.
Reminding Anjali Chatterjee of the laws, Yeshwant Shenoy's response on behalf of his client Gaurav Taneja explicitly stated, "I am certain that your legal department would advise you that 'Enquiry is vitiated if the employee has not been paid his salary/ or subsistence allowance." Taneja also said that he was coaxed to sign a letter titled "voluntarily forgoing salary for the month of April. Assuming that he is not pressing for the salary due in April, no such letter has been signed for the month of May nor have the contracts been revised and signed.
Shenoy also stated, "Because of Covid-19 captains have become a major cost center for the airlines and they want to remove captains. So they thought it's probably the best opportunity to terminate a pilot, as the moment you terminate a pilot, the company actually ends up making about Rs 80 lakh, which is gain. So if the company has to terminate Gaurav there's a one-year notice period to it, and the company will stand to gain Rs 4 to Rs 5 lakh per month for a year if the pilot is suspended."
Assuming that the show-cause notice by the company, itself to be charge sheet, Shenoy believes then the laws in force will require AirAsia to comply with the following:
- Which is the notice that the company is treating as a charge sheet? Will the enquiry be restricted to three points stated in the show cause notice or is the company looking at availing new grounds?
- Was the preliminary enquiry conducted before or after the show cause notice was issued? If yes, who conducted the same and can we have a copy of the preliminary Enquiry report
- Can Taneja be defended by a person of his choice? If not, why and under what provision of the law is the denial coming forth?
- What is the list of documents that the company is relying on? A certified copy of such documents should be provided to Gaurav Taneja and the list of witnesses who would be called upon.
- What rules and regulations and standing orders will the company follow for the enquiry?
- Will the entire proceedings be video recorded only or will there be written proceedings of the enquiry as well?
@MoCA_GoI : DGCA has blocked me. I have sent this below e-mail requesting for 2 interim measures to prevent IX 812. The DGCA can take their sweet time to investigate, but they can't be silent to safety issues and are bound to issue interim orders in terms of COI recommendations. pic.twitter.com/hKTFRp7k4D— Yeshwanth (@AwakenIndia) June 19, 2020
Shenoy in his letter to the DGCA said, "Flap 3 landing may be a good practice, it may be recommended but under no circumstances can a Captain be questioned on the use of flaps. To what extent can company policy infringe into the captain's territory? The email issued to Capt. Taneja, the company is clearly questioning the pilot on 'safe' landings. In the month of March, Capt. Taneja did a total of 10 landings of which two were at Imphal and one was at Bagdogra. The other 7 landings were in Flap 3 and one of them was at Bagdogra. So when circumstances exist, the captain has used Flap 3. He used full flaps only in the interest of safety."
Shenoy further requested DGCA to, "Order AirAsia India to immediately stop issuing e-mails to pilots for not achieving targets that have nothing to do with safety and in fact run contrary to safety." Also, "the sign off on all the emails of the management pilots need to be pulled out with immediate effect as it pushes every pilot to achieve targets running contrary to safety. Once these sign-offs are imprinted in the minds of Captain, all it takes is a fraction of seconds to make a wrong decision. Those fraction of seconds is the time for an accident/incident to happen and maybe the difference between life and death."
When Shenoy tweeted about AirAsia's safety standards, he was sent a 'Cease & Desist' Notice by the airline, which clearly told Shenoy that AirAsia is hiding something. He questioned, "If AirAsia has nothing to hide, it will not try to silence me. Why else would they be worried about me tweeting when I had less than 300 followers and my tweets were seldom replied to or retweeted by people whom I can count with fingers in one hand."
Are SOP drafting flaws to be blamed for misinterpretation?
Captain Amit Singh, an aviation blogger with Mindfly blog and popular on Twitter as @flyingamit said that the policy should be drafted carefully and suggested that if the airline carrier wants pilots to consistently perform FLAP 3 landings, instead of Flap Full, then the policy document should read as: "Normal flaps for landing is Flap 3 but, at the discretion of the pilot in command (PIC), up to a maximum of 2% landings can be performed with Flap Full."
Blaming the framing and effective usage of language of SOPs, perhaps not in defence of airline violation of safety norms, Singh said, "The intended meaning of a sentence is not necessarily its literal meaning of the utterance. People tend to avoid risk when a positive frame is presented but seek risks when a negative frame is presented. Gain and loss are defined in the scenario as descriptions of outcomes (e.g., lives lost or saved, disease patients treated and not treated, etc.). The framing effect is a cognitive bias where people decide on options based on whether the options are presented with positive or negative connotations; e.g. as a loss or a gain."
Emphasizing on the need to draft SOPs better and carefully, Captain Singh added, "The positive connotation and the implied meaning can have an impact on the cognitive aspects. There is a need for a buy-in rather than impose the SOPs. The stakeholders have to feel responsible and a part of the decision-making process rather than perform the actions out of fear of retribution."
Sick leave policy and other issues faced by airline pilots
Among other allegations, Gaurav Taneja has also alleged AirAsia India of not allowing its pilots' sick leaves and making him work on his off days. When Gaurav Taneja reported fatigue and took a day off from work, AirAsia India raised objections to the same. The company left no stone unturned to tarnish his reputation as a successful aviator in the business by asking him to undergo lifestyle counseling sessions and change lifestyle, conduct medical tests often for rare sick leaves requests, etc.. The top management of the airline was equally involved and has supported the process throughout.
According to FAA USA guidelines, "Fatigue threatens aviation safety because it increases the risk of pilot error that could lead to an accident."
In favour of the sick leave policy for pilots, Captain Amit Singh opined, "As per regulation, the pilot is not supposed to fly if they are not fit to fly. Reporting sick and leave policy depends on the airline and is an administrative issue. One can report sick any time and there is a reason to do so and the reasons can be plenty. However, processing the leave is a non-regulatory issue."
Supporting @flyingbeast320 Gaurav Taneja's argument, Singh believes "he is trying to emphasize on the need to analyze the human factor behind mandatory fuel saving."
Captain Singh said, "While fuel savings translate to money saved, there is a need to determine the human factors impact. There is a need to grade the fuel savings from low risk to medium or high risk depending on the phase of the flight, cognitive workload, and other factors. The profit margins are so slim that the airlines are forced to deploy maximum available options for saving costs. The fuel cost is one of the highest, every effort is made to reduce the fuel burn at every stage of the flight."
Singh further added: "Fuel-saving is important but at the same time it is important to train the pilots and make them a part of the system so that they are motivated to save fuel rather than out of fear of action or doing it mechanically. Norwegian airlines have a fuel efficiency system, where there is a lot of pilot interaction and feedback. Surveys and feedback enable refining the policy for optimization and make the pilots feel a part of the system and the success."
DGCA's intervention on the safety culture practiced by airline carriers
"DGCA has taken note of the concerns raised by some stakeholders against a particular airline and its approach to safety. DGCA has already started an investigation into the issues flagged and shall take appropriate action based on the outcome of the said investigation," the Directorate General of Civil Aviation said on Twitter.
While AirAsia India is supporting DGCA's probe to investigate the violation of safety norms, the low-cost airline carrier in question reserves its right to not comment on matters in specific pertaining to its business or employees.
Was suppose to apppear for an enquiry by AirAsia on 17th June. Sent them a notice on 16th June via email and WhatsApp asking for the charges leveled against me, which is our legal right. they have still not acknowledged our email. @AnjaliCC @BhaskaranSunil @mukeshnema1969— Gaurav Taneja (@flyingbeast320) June 17, 2020
Captain Singh affirms, "In order to establish a safety culture, every individual needs to work towards it. The DGCA alone cannot force airlines and employees to change their culture. It's not always about punishing or punitive action but investigating and reaching the real cause or causes and addressing them rather than treating the symptom."
However, Yeshwant Shenoy, the lawyer for Gaurav Taneja assumes, "Even in Capt. Gaurav's case I don't expect the DGCA to look at safety. DGCA will think of ways to save AirAsia and its unsafe practices. DGCA will collude with the AirAsia management. I will not be surprised if the DGCA decides to go after Capt. Gaurav's license itself. It may go a lot further."
The probe is on, discussions and email exchanges between Gaurav Taneja, AirAsia management, the HR head, and the DGCA continues.