Maybe they were sleeping off the booze

Indian aviation just can’t seem to catch a break. First there was a story about the number of pilots who get grounded because they are have had too much to drink:

Around 50 pilots each year in India are being grounded because they had consumed alcohol before taking a flight, the country’s civil aviation authorities said Tuesday… Civil aviation rules specify that pilots and cabin crew cannot consume alcohol 12 hours before taking a flight… India is one of the fastest growing aviation markets in the world with dozens of new airlines competing with each other everyday, often resulting in pilots forced to fly at short notices. [Link]

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p>Notice that this is meant to be a positive story. Even if pilots are boneheaded, they’re getting caught before they get into the cockpit. If they’re actually catching all the tipsy pilots (and that’s a big if), then oversight authorities have done their job well.

However, there’s no good way to spin this next story other than to point out that at least nobody got hurt:

An Air India flight headed for Mumbai overshot its destination and was halfway to Goa before its dozing pilots were woken out of a deep slumber by air traffic control, a report said…

“After operating an overnight flight, fatigue levels peak — and so the pilots dozed off after taking off from Jaipur,” … The plane flew to Mumbai on autopilot, but when air traffic there tried to help the aircraft land, the plane ignored their instructions and carried on at full speed towards Goa. “It was only after the aircraft reached Mumbai airspace that air traffic control realised it was not responding to any instructions and was carrying on its own course,” the source said.

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p>Finally air traffic control buzzed the cockpit and woke up the pilots, who turned the plane around, the report said. [Link]

Air India has strenuously denied the story, saying that it was merely a communications glitch:

“The report is absolutely incorrect, devoid of facts, misleading and irresponsible. It is a figment of imagination,” Air India spokesman Jitender Bhargava told AFP by telephone from Mumbai. [Link]

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p>Note that a shutdown in communication still doesn’t explain why the pilots neglected to land the airplane as they were supposed to in Bombay. At best Air India is saying that its pilots simply … forgot, and there was nobody to remind them. Maybe they had a bit too much to drink.

18 thoughts on “Maybe they were sleeping off the booze

  1. One would think – the auto pilot programme would have an alarm to wake up the dozing pilots, say 30 min or 100 miles from the final destination. Looks like the automation needs some final fine tuning.

    And for the Mumbai bound passengers – lucky the plane had enough fuel to do the short turnaround trip.

  2. Pingpong – that’s a good point about the sleeping pilots on the Hawaii flight. The funny thing about blogging for SM is that I’m more likely to encounter news from South Asia than I am to read stories about parts of the US where I don’t live. You’re right that this happens here as well …

  3. Agreed – I don’t mean to imply that it only happens in India, or that it happens more in India. I know the first isn’t true and have no data either way about the frequency. I just thought it was an interesting set of stories, one after the other. Thanks for the link!

  4. Ennis, I agree they are both very interesting stories esp. with the short time frame between them. Thanks!

  5. 2 · pingpong said

    Cue Lou Dobbs ranting about outsourcing sleeping pilots’ jobs in 3…

    Actually, India is currently desperately short of commercial pilots, and is importing them from abroad as well as stealing them from the Air Force. So this is the opposite of a Lou Dobbs story.

    In fact, many Indians, seeing these trends, are in the US trying to become pilots. Here is a particularly apropos story, datelined today:

    Indian trainee pilots duped by US schools

    and a story with statistics on the number of ‘imported’ pilots by airline: India needs 5,000 more pilots within the next 5 years

  6. Wasn’t trying to imply something like “Ha ha! The US is no better!” or something. I happened to remember the Hawaii drunk pilots story solely because it happened just a few months back, and before that I had never heard of pilots falling asleep on the job. The Hawaii incident pilots were fired subsequently, while AI seems to be covering their asses.

    Compared to both of them, British Airways seems to be setting a stellar example of integrity: British Air fliers delayed 13 hours after crew refuses to fly, citing sleepiness. That flight was from Delhi to London, and apparently the crew could not sleep because of noise at their hotel.

  7. Error in previous comment of mine: “Hawaii drunk pilots story” should read “Hawaii sleepy pilots story”.

  8. The reason that the incident was hushed up was because it was on an Air India flight. If it would have happened on a any other airline there would have been a huge hue and cry about it. The fleet would have been grounded for weeks, maybe months while an inquiry was carried out.

    Until now, most of these air safety incidents have happened on the nationalised carriers. Everybody knows that if something happens on a privatised carrier, the repercussions would be severe.

  9. Back in ’01, we were flying Air Lanka from S. India to Columbo, Sri Lanka. The flight was the wildest and most frightening flight that I’ve ever had. When we landed in Sri Lanka and was going through customs, I SWEAR that I saw those pilots playing cards with their fiery red eyes, and below where they were sitting in plain view was a fifth of whiskey! I remember that I had commented on this to my cousin, and one of those guys basically was telling us to buzz off.

  10. Hmm…I’ve had first hand experience both with Air India incompetence as well as first hand experience with the Indian press making up stories to fill space. It says Associated Press–but if this story originated with Times of India it could possibly be bogus.

  11. I was on a domestic flight in India last week on SpiceJet. It had an all Indian cabin crew, until the “this is your captain speaking” announcement. Captain Hargreaves (sp?) spoke in that classic southern pilot jock drawl which Tom Wolfe describes in his book “The Right Stuff” (Basically, the point is that all US pilots try to sound like Chuck Yeager, the test pilot’s test pilot).

    I’m afraid to say that my reaction to the unexpected accent was to feel reassured. Does this make me a reverse racist? Please help.

  12. 13 · Videshi said

    Hmm…I’ve had first hand experience both with Air India incompetence as well as first hand experience with the Indian press making up stories to fill space. It says Associated Press–but if this story originated with Times of India it could possibly be bogus.

    There have been well known flight cancellations in India after catching (random check) the Pilot in inebriated state.

  13. I’m afraid to say that my reaction to the unexpected accent was to feel reassured. Does this make me a reverse racist? Please help.

    I don’t know about that, but I had a similar yet different experience recently. I saw a woman striding around the gate in Chennai airport last winter, wearing (I kid you not) aviator sunglasses and navy trousers and a shirt with epaulets and it was only when onboard the Jet Airways flight to Bombay, when I heard the chef de cabine announce “Our pilot today is Captain Sonia Singh” that I then understood why that woman was out and about by our plane: she was the pilot. I thought that was pretty cool. It took ages on some European carriers to have women pilots.

    To do that one better, I was interviewing someone the other day who just left NY for Bombay last night, and who mentioned that he knew a long-haul pilot for Jet who is a woman too. Now that impressed me; it felt like the girls have made it to the “Big Boys” club and are actually allowed to fly the long-distance international flights, not just the shorter internal ones.

  14. A flight from Jaipur to Mumbai is 1 hour, and Mumbai to Goa is 1 hour. So halfway to Goa sounds terrible until you realize they overshot by 20 to 30 minutes.

  15. Well, I have always said that Air India sucks. I mean its still a 3 star airline by Aviation standards. Its sad when Indian people don’t wanna go on AI. This is why I would recommend people to go on Jet Airways. But the fact that AI pilots get drunk is sad. It reminds me of the crime situation in India. We think to ourselves is India just lawless especially when a headline said India is the murder capital of the world? Is this the distinction PIO, Indians, etc. wanna carry? Its sad.

    Another thing to ponder is that many of India’s airports are using 70′s technology. Mumbai had so many near in air collisions between airliners and same with Delhi. So it makes you wonder, where the hell is money being allocated in India and why is there no authority?