Dreamliner pilots grounded, too

TOKYO — With the worldwide fleet of Boeing 787s grounded because of battery fires, Air India pilot Anjum Chabra turned to rap to lament his fate.

“Ain’t no flight for me here so ain’t no Singapore, ain’t no casino for me so there’s no money no more,” he sang in a video he posted on YouTube. “What kind of pilot am I, who sits at home most of the time never gets to fly.”

His plight is shared by Dreamliner pilots across the industry since the planes were grounded on Jan. 16. Pilots, who spend weeks training for new aircraft, usually don’t fly more than one type of plane at the same time to reduce the risk of mistakes in different cockpits. With no end in sight for the planes to resume service, they are passing their time practicing in flight simulators and speaking to students.

“When you don’t know when the aircraft will be ready to fly again, you don’t want to cross that bridge of putting them on to another aircraft,” said Peter Harbison, executive chairman at the Sydney-based CAPA Centre for Aviation. “There will be an array of issues in putting them on other planes.”

Experts are still investigating the cause of a lithium-ion battery fire on a Japan Airlines Co.-operated Dreamliner in Boston in January, and an emergency landing by a 787 plane of All Nippon Airways later that month. The incidents led to their global grounding, the first time in 34 years that an entire airplane model has been pulled from service.

Boeing last month submitted a permanent solution for the battery problem to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to get the plane back in service. The proposal will require extensive testing even if approved before regulators end the plane’s grounding, the U.S.’s top aviation official said.

Dreamliner pilots at All Nippon Airways, the biggest operator of 787s, have been visiting school children to talk about their jobs since their planes have been grounded.

They went to Den-En Chofu University near Tokyo last month where they talked to 120 children. They’ve also been taking training lessons and using the flight simulators in their free time, said Megumi Tezuka, an airline spokeswoman.

ANA, whose 17 787s make up about 7 percent of its fleet, has canceled 3,601 flights through the end of May, affecting 167,820 passengers. It has about 200 pilots qualified to fly the Dreamliner, said Tezuka. The Tokyo-based carrier said in January the grounding of the fleet cut sales by 1.4 billion yen ($15 million) that month.

JAL has 130 certified pilots who are observing flights on other planes and doing drills to maintain their skills, said Jian Yang, a spokesman with the carrier. The company, which has seven 787s in its fleet, isn’t training any new pilots, he said. Last month, the airline said the flight cancellations would cut sales by 1.1 billion yen in revenue through the end of March.

Air India pilot Chabra also complained about money in the song. An Air India spokesman confirmed Chabra was a pilot with the state-run company. He couldn’t be reached for comment.

United Continental Holdings has about 125 that have completed training for the planes, Christen David, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based carrier, said in an e-mail. Some of the carrier’s 787 pilots are able to return to the planes they were flying earlier if they were still “current” on those airplanes, said Jay Pierce, chairman of the Continental chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association.

It’s a “huge problem for the airlines that have already taken delivery of those aircraft,” said International Air Transport Association’s Chief Executive Officer Tony Tyler. “Until the problem has been resolved we won’t see those aircraft operated.”

The airlines most likely don’t have enough spare planes for the 787 pilots to fly even if they were retrained for other models, said CAPA’s Harbison.

Pilots spend two to three months learning to fly 787s, depending on what planes they flew beforehand, ANA’s Tezuka said. The airline isn’t considering having the pilots fly other aircraft as it expects the grounding won’t be long-term, she said.

ANA pilots’ salaries are being cut by about 20 percent, compared with when they were flying, as they lose night time and long distance travel allowances, said Toshikazu Nagasawa, a director at the Air Line Pilots’ Association of Japan, which has about 4,500 pilots as members. JAL pilots are losing about 30 percent, as they have a different payment structure, he said.

In the case of the rapping Chabra, his return to the cockpit is not guaranteed even after the 787s resume service.

Indian Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh said in an interview that he asked the airline’s chairman to take action against the pilot.

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