Pilots slam UL management for failing to implement COVID-19 protection measures

Saturday, 9 January 2021 00:09 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • Say SriLankan has not provided facility to house asymptomatic staff or introduced needed steps
  • Charge workload increased to unfair levels, pilot welfare ignored 
  • Despite repeated attempts to resolve issues, management uncooperative 
  • Contend pilots guild and others have always worked in country’s interests 

In a stinging statement, the Airline pilots’ Guild of Sri Lanka (APGSL) yesterday slammed the SriLankan Airlines management, insisting that despite repeated efforts, they had blatantly disregarded putting in place measures to protect staff and provide much-needed resources to continue their duties without fear of COVID-19 infections.

Below is the full statement released by APGSL.

It is with utmost disappointment and revulsion that we have been compelled to respond publicly due to the CEO and the management being unwilling to accept their sheer incompetence in organising a private facility to house asymptomatic staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the line of duty while attempting to hide behind a shabbily-worded, factually-lacking press release aimed at tarnishing the reputation of its dedicated pilots.

At the very onset of the pandemic, it was the pilots and crew of SriLankan Airlines who continued flights to mainland China when all the major global airlines suspended operations immediately. The crew went above and beyond their call of duty when they were sent on a humanitarian mission to Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic at the time, in order to bring home Sri Lankan students who were stranded there. This was done without hesitation, with the purest of motives and in the best interest of the nation with full knowledge of the serious risks involved.

Further to this, due to the normal operations of the company being disrupted, the monthly roster that the crew normally works by was made a weekly one, with crew on standby most of the time, ready to operate flights at a moment’s notice. 

These flights, too, when operated, would entail a period of self-isolation away from their families for seven to 14 days and a PCR test thereafter. 

The laid-down flight duty periods (the maximum allowable duty time) were extended in order to stretch the limits of the pilots so that the company could maximise profits and take advantage of any available business opportunity. This meant operating a flight to Europe and flying back immediately after a minimum rest period of 12-14 hours.

Although it was exhausting work, it was done unhesitatingly and unquestioningly in the spirit of unity and the sole intention of doing the best we can to help the airline weather the storm during these difficult times.

As frontline staff who are directly exposed to the brunt of the pandemic by way of transporting hundreds of potentially infected passengers, it seems obvious that the highest priority of the company would be to have a well-laid-out plan in the event one of the crew members tests positive. This was never done by the company, and although highlighted several times by the ALPGSL, scant regard was afforded, with written communication responded to several days later or not responded to at all.

Several months ago, many reputed corporate companies proactively made arrangements with the MOH and other relevant government authorities to house their staff in private facilities in the event their employees tested positive. 

Again, the powers that be at SriLankan Airlines did not even attempt, let alone initiate a similar process, knowing full well the high possibility of a crew member testing positive.

The company has failed in its duty towards protecting its own. Adding insult to injury, they did not even react when crew members started testing positive nor did they move to begin discussions with authorities concerning company-affiliated treatment facilities. The authorities themselves at this juncture have said that had SriLankan Airlines requested a private facility, it would have been made possible. However SriLankan Airlines did not act.

The management has displayed an unenthusiastic approach in handling this affair from the very beginning. Their negligent behaviour in responding to formal written communication and in taking any sort of action is a clear reflection of their ineptitude and incompetence in the protection of their frontline staff – something that many corporate companies have proven in the last few months is not impossible nor difficult.

After repeated attempts to rectify the situation through the proper internal channels, the ALPGSL was forced to resort to ‘flying the published roster’. All this means is that we will do our duties as stipulated in the published roster. However on the rostered days off, we will not undertake duties that the company may ask us to perform. It must be made crystal clear that there is no legal or contractual obligation to work on an ‘off day’, and it is fully within the rights of a crew member to accept or refuse duty on an ‘off day’.

It is actually very important for a crew member to receive these mandatory off days within a published duty period in order for him/her to be well-rested due to the odd hours of work and nights spent without any sleep. Flying on off days could lead to severe and chronic fatigue, rendering it a safety risk for that pilot to be in control of an aircraft and be responsible for its passengers.

The actions of the company are deplorable for it has been made abundantly evident that the company could have facilitated private accommodation without too much difficulty, yet they never attempted to do so but instead hid behind excuses claiming that the Government was not cooperating with them. The ALPGSL was forced to take action in order for their grievance to be attended to and the urgency of it was stressed. 

In addition to a crew member testing positive, his/her family is also subject to PCR testing, exposing them to the very real possibility of being dispatched to a quarantine centre in any part of the country. The action being taken by the pilots in this moment is one of desperation, in order to protect their loved ones from having to face the danger of being sent somewhere for 14 days.

The ALPGSL has for decades stood by the company, always keeping the best interests of their beloved airline at heart. During the dangerous times of the Civil War, even when the Katunayake Airport was attacked by terrorists, the pilots and the crew did not stand down. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have always put our duty before our own interests, even when it meant our families and loved ones could be exposed to the virus. 

It is with a heavy heart that we watch the management of our beloved company sink to a new low, the sheer audacity with which they have acted and the total disregard they have shown for their hard-working employees.

Had the company and the members of the management directly responsible for this predicament employed the same enthusiasm and fast-tracking procedures used when it is concerning a matter of personal importance to themselves, we believe that a suitable solution could have been arrived at already, and we would strive above and beyond our stipulated duties in the best interests of the airline. It is deeply saddening that having marched on despite all odds, the company has resorted to treating its employees in a despicable manner, showing no appreciation for the efforts made by us nor remorse for its inaction. 

The second pilot tested positive on 27 November 2020, and from that time onwards, the ALPGSL has made repeated requests to the management to stir themselves into action. There were glaring shortcomings on the part of the management which could easily have been rectified. Failing to do this, however, they have now resorted to strong-arm tactics and harassment in gross violation of the laws of the land.

We hope that our grievance will be resolved with the same vigor and urgency that was taken to make a defamatory press release against the ALPGSL and initiate a campaign of harassment against the pilots. However, unflinching, we will continue to be ambassadors of our proud island nation.