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As travel begins to rebound, are employees of Indian airlines vaccinated?

The risk of infection spreading on airplanes is lower if Covid-19 protocols, including vaccination, are adhered to. Researchers say the danger of transmission is highest during meal services as well as boarding and departure procedures

October 31, 2021 / 01:10 PM IST
Air travel is picking up and COVID-19 vaccines can make or break the revival. (Image: Shutterstock)

Air travel is picking up and COVID-19 vaccines can make or break the revival. (Image: Shutterstock)

In August, United Airlines became the first American carrier that required all its domestic employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. United was so insistent on the vaccination drive that it moved to lay off employees who refused to get jabs. It has also since tried to use it as a competitive advantage.

What about India?

In the early days of the pandemic, before flights were halted and vaccines had been developed, airline pilots and crew were exposed to the virus as they continued to fly. Even after scheduled international flights were halted by India, Air India, IndiGo, SpiceJet, Vistara and Go First continued to operate international flights under the Vande Bharat scheme.

Over the course of the pandemic, some airline staff have paid a heavy price for not being vaccinated. In June this year, well after vaccines had become available, agencies reported that 17 pilots from private carriers and Air India had succumbed to Covid-19 in the previous month.

Despite this, airlines in India have not issued a vaccine diktat for employees. Compliance though has been high and there has been little resistance, unlike in the United States, according to airline executives Moneycontrol spoke to.

COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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To be sure, airlines need to ensure that their staff, particularly pilots and cabin crew, are fully vaccinated, for their own protection as well as for the safety of passengers.

According to a CNBC report, researchers have found that the risk of infection on airplanes is lower if Covid-19 rules are adhered to strictly. However, they noted that new variants could pose a danger.

The report said that currently, the danger of transmission is highest during meal services as well as boarding and departure procedures.

Vaccination status

On October 24, IndiGo said 100 percent of its employees and those of subsidiary Agile have been vaccinated with the first dose. “... 65 percent of them have been fully vaccinated (with both doses),” a statement by the airline said, adding that 90 percent of its pilots and 84 percent of its cabin crew are fully vaccinated. IndiGo is the market leader with a 57 percent share in the domestic market.

Agile is a subsidiary of IndiGo, set up in 2017 to provide airport and ground handling services. There are an estimated 14,000 personnel working on contract for the subsidiary.

A SpiceJet spokesperson said that all staff have been vaccinated but declined to get into specifics, while a spokesperson for Vistara said 85 percent of its over 4,000 staff had been vaccinated with both doses. “Among frontline staff (cabin crew and pilots), 88 percent are fully vaccinated with both doses,” the Vistara spokesperson said.

AirAsia India said it has been actively conducting vaccination drives and has inoculated 100 percent of its staff members with the first dose and 90 percent of eligible employees with the second dose. AirAsia’s estimated staff strength is about 2,800 personnel. The airline says it was the first to operate flights with a fully vaccinated crew earlier this year.

Similarly, 95 percent of Go First’s inflight crew had taken the first jab, while 86 percent had been vaccinated with the second dose, a spokesperson for the airline, formerly known as Go Air, said.

Air India did not respond to inquiries for this article.

How things are playing out in the US and other parts of the world

In the United States, with the federal government insisting that carriers vaccinate all their employees by December, the airlines scrambled to vaccinate employees.

American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines all indicated that they would comply with President Joe Biden's executive order, issued in September, requiring workers to get vaccinated.

United Airlines, in fact, had told its 67,000 employees on August 6 that those who did not get vaccinated by a September deadline would be fired.

The threat worked — the number of holdouts dropped from 593 to 320 once the deadline had passed. The airline’s CEO Scott Kirby told Forbes magazine earlier this month that it is now in the process of terminating 232 employees.

However, the responses of other international airlines are not as drastic. According to Carsten Spohr, Chief Executive Officer, Lufthansa, he wished he could do it but added,  “We owe it to our staff, our passengers, our community. It is like when you hire someone you cannot ask if they are pregnant. We cannot ask a staff if he or she is vaccinated,” Spohr said.

Lynne Embleton, Chief Executive Officer, Aer Lingus, agreed with Spohr when he said they cannot ask (the staff to get vaccinated) but quickly added that the vaccination rate is high as 74 percent of the total population had been vaccinated. “That gives some comfort,” she added.
Ashwini Phadnis is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.
first published: Oct 31, 2021 01:10 pm