Pilots group defends 'overworked' Air India captain

The Serbian Pilots Association says the pressure of working in India could be to blame for the accident in Mangalore that killed 158 people.

The Serbian Pilots Association has defended the "sleepy" captain blamed for the Air India Express plane crash from Dubai to the Indian city of Mangalore that killed 158 passengers and crew, saying he had been overworked.

Indian media, citing an investigative panel, said this week that the Serbian flight commander slept through more than half the flight and woke up "disorientated" which made his reactions slow when it was time to land the aircraft.

The pilots association leapt to his defence over the weekend, saying in a statement that Captain Zlatko Glusica should not be "victimised" because the mistake could have been due to fatigue caused by "pressures" while working in India.

Air India Express is a low-fare unit of Air India, the country's national carrier.

"The individualization of guilt ... is intended to shift the responsibility from those who have driven the crew and the passengers to death," the association said.

It said the Indian panel "created an ugly picture about the Serbian pilots ... without taking into account the circumstances" that led to the crash.

A spokesman for the airline offered no comment regarding the accusation of pilot fatigue brought on by working conditions.

Abhay Pathak, the regional head of Air India in the Gulf, said: "As an airline, we cannot comment. There are other authorities investigating it. It is under their investigation."

A recently concluded Indian investigation found that Mr Glusica slept through more than half of the three-hour flight from Dubai on May 22.

Air India set up the six-member court of inquiry to investigate the country's first major crash since 2000. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation and Boeing, the manufacturers of the two-year-old plane, were part of the investigation team.

The crash investigation found the pilot was suffering from "sleep inertia" and was "disorientated" when the plane began its descent in the early hours. The flight data recorders caught the sound of heavy nasal snoring and breathing during the flight.

After Mr Glusica overshot the runway and tried to take off again, the Air India Express Boeing 737 broke through the boundary walls of the hilltop Mangalore Bajpe airport and plunged into a valley. Only eight people survived. Most of the dead worked in Dubai and the Northern Emirates.

In a report filed to the Indian Civil Aviation Ministry last week, there were detailed findings gathered from the aircraft's digital flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.

Despite warnings from the co-pilot, HS Ahluwalia, Mr Glusica attempted to take off after touchdown, with only 244 metres left of the 2.4km runway.

"We don't have runway left," Mr Ahluwalia said, one of the repeated warnings recorded in the cockpit.

The last words captured by the recorders as the plane crashed were those of one of the pilots saying: "Oh, my God."

Mr Glusica had more than 10,200 hours of flying experience. He had previously flown for Serbian state carrier JAT Airways.

Frustration against India's national carrier has grown among the victims' families, who said problems with the airline were "almost a daily occurrence".

Mohammed Beary, 55, lost four members of his family who were on their way to Mangalore to attend a wedding. Mr Beary, who runs a school in Mangalore, formed the Mangalore Air Crash Victims Family Association soon after. He said the report, along with news that the pilot was overworked, will affect how compensation packages are paid out to the victims' families.

"When it is the fault of the airline, the compensation package becomes higher," said Mr Beary. "Whether it is fault or no fault of the pilot, it is the fault of the airline."

Mr Beary echoed the concern of many who said the staff of the budget airline were constantly under strain to work more hours, due to budget cuts within the company.

"It is the duty of the airline to make alternate arrangements if the pilot is tired," he said. "They are playing with the lives of people. The pilot should have had some time to rest. This is an eye opener to all concerned airlines not to make their pilots work so hard."

Biju Theekkeveettil, 36, a civil engineer, who works in Dubai lost his parents in the crash. They were returning to India after a visit.

"This is not the first time we have heard about staffing issues with Air India. This has become almost a daily occurrence when you hear about Air India problems," he said. "For the past two or three years, they have had issues with staff, as well as delays and cancellations due to lack of ground staff."

Mr Theekkeveettil said the pilot was likely overworked but the blame lay with the company for "ignoring" the safety of its passengers and staff.

* With additional reporting from Associated Press