Unsubstantiated Claims Follow Deaths of British and Indian Airline Pilots

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Following the deaths of four British Airways pilots and five Air India pilots, social media posts claimed without proof that the pilots died as a result of receiving COVID-19 vaccines. Air India said its pilots died from COVID-19. British Airways said “there is no truth whatsoever in the claims on social media speculating that the four deaths are linked.”



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The COVID-19 pandemic severely affected the aviation industry on a global scale, as we’ve reported, causing massive layoffs and unexpected deaths among employees. The International Air Transport Association categorized last year as “the worst year in history” for air travel demand, with global passenger traffic declining 66% compared with 2019.

In April 2020, British Airways announced plans to cut 12,000 jobs due to the pandemic — totaling more than a quarter of the company’s jobs. 

In recent months, British Airways also suffered the deaths of four pilots.

The loss of the British pilots — and pilots’ deaths in other countries — sparked a burst of unsubstantiated claims about the cause of their deaths on social media.  

“Four British Airway PILOTS have DIED of the COVID VACCINE in the past 7-days,” read a post on Facebook. Another Facebook post repeated a similar false claim about the pilots dying “in the same week, just days after getting [the] second” vaccine dose.

A post on Instagram read, “4 British Airways pilots DEAD. 1 Delta pilot DEAD. Canadian pilot unconscious on runway. All in ONE WEEK. What do they all have in common? [Needle emoji] Safe Travels!” 

But it’s not true that all the British pilots died in the same week, and there is no evidence the pilots died after getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

In response to the claims, British Airways tweeted on June 17: “Sadly four members of our pilot community passed away recently. Our thoughts are with their family and friends. However, there is no truth whatsoever in the claims on social media speculating that the four deaths are linked.”

Capt. Nicholas Synnott died in early June following a long battle with COVID-19. Senior First Officer Edward Brice-Bennett was declared dead on June 2, after being found unconscious on a mountain bike trail, according to news reports. Snopes confirmed the death of Senior First Officer Grant Mercer, who passed away on May 4, and a person with knowledge of the circumstances of his death said it had no connection with the COVID-19 vaccination. The fourth pilot was not identified by the airline or in media reports.

A British Airways spokesperson told Reuters that none of the deaths were linked to vaccines. British Airways hasn’t said if the pilots were vaccinated. We could find no public mention that they received a first or second vaccine dose.

Yet the claim keeps spreading, adding more unfounded details and a baseless claim that five Indian pilots died after receiving COVID-19 vaccines.

“Five vaxxed British Airway pilots just died in a week from heart attacks and internal bleeding. A 6th has severe blood clots that have disqualified him from flying. 5 commercial pilots in India just died after being vaxxed in May,” read an Instagram post shared on June 22. 

As we’ve reported, there is no evidence of an added risk of blood clots for vaccinated air travelers, as suggested in the Instagram post.

There is also no evidence that the Indian pilots had been vaccinated, as the Instagram post claimed. In fact, Air India has said the five pilots died in May of COVID-19. The deaths occurred between May 9 and May 30, according to Asian News International.

A second wave of the pandemic — which started in mid-March and peaked in May — infected millions and killed tens of thousands across India, hitting at a time when the country was experiencing a vaccine shortage

As of June 29, India had one of the lowest vaccination rates, with only 19.05% of the population receiving at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Pilots and aircrew were essential in the efforts to contain the outbreak by evacuating some citizens and delivering essential items, such as oxygen tanks or ventilators.

Unfortunately, frequent traveling puts pilots at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. The Indian Commercial Pilots Association, a union of Air India pilots, wrote a letter to the airline management on May 4, stating, “Many crew have been diagnosed Covid positive and are struggling to get oxygen cylinders. We are left to fend for ourselves for hospitalization.” 

Air India, a public limited company, said later on May 4 that it would vaccinate all of its employees against COVID-19 by the end of the month.

But on May 10 the carrier announced it had to cancel the vaccination drive, saying, “The proposed Covid vaccination camp at GSD Complex, Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) on May 11 and May 13 stands cancelled because government authorities have expressed inability to hold these camps due to non-availability of vaccines.”

After facing pay cuts and being denied a priority for vaccinations, many pilots contracted COVID-19. Since February, 17 pilots have died of COVID-19 from several Indian airlines — including the five Air India pilots who died in May.  

On June 3, Air India officials announced that pilots Captain Harsh Tiwary, Captain Gurpratap S. Gill, Captain Prasad Karmakar, Captain Sandeep Rana and Captain Amitesh Prasad died due to COVID-19. The airline also said it had started vaccinating its employees on May 15 after a delay due to the lack of vaccines.

There is no evidence the Air India pilots received vaccines, as suggested by the social media post.

Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over our editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.

Sources

5 senior Air India pilots died in May due to Covid-19.” India Today. Updated 3 June 2021. 

17 pilots of Air India, IndiGo, Vistara died of Covid in May: Sources.” India Today. Updated 4 June 2021

AI cancels Covid vaccination camp for 2 days due to ‘non-availability’ of vaccines.” India Today. 11 May 2021. 

Air India (@airindiain). “#FlyAI: Air India Group started vaccination drive for all its employees including all pilots and cabin crew, on 15th May 21 at Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and other locations. All eligible staff of AI and its subsidiaries have been vaccinated. #Unite2FightCorona.” Twitter. 9 Jun 2021. 

Alluri Aparna. “India’s Covid vaccine shortage: The desperate wait gets longer.” BBC. 1 May 2021.

British Airways to cut up to 12,000 jobs as air travel collapses.” BBC. 28 April 2020.

British Airway (@British_Airways). “Sadly four members of our pilot community passed away recently. Our thoughts are with their family and friends. However, there is no truth whatsoever in the claims on social media speculating that the four deaths are linked. Helen.” Twitter. 17 Jun 2021. 

“Fact Check — British Airways is not in ‘crisis talks’ with the government over vaccinated pilots.” Reuters. 17 Jun 2021.

International Air Transport Association. “2020 Worst Year in History for Air Travel Demand.” Press release. 3 Feb 2021.

Indian Air Force flown 1,400 hours in 21 days to boost oxygen supply.” Mint. 12 May 2021.

Jones, Brea. “Airlines Are Encouraging, Not Banning, Vaccinated Passengers.” FactCheck.org. 22 Jun 2021.

Josephs, Leslie. “U.S. airlines’ 2020 losses expected to top $35 billion as pandemic threatens another difficult year.” CNBC. Updated 1 Jan 2021.

Kundu, Rhik. “Air India pilots threaten to stop working if the airline fails to set up vaccination camps.” Mint. Updated 4 May 2021.

MacGuill, Dan. “No, Four British Airways Pilots Did Not Die From COVID-19 Vaccine.” Snopes. 22 Jun 2021.

Mukul, Pranay. “Air India pilots say vaccinate or won’t fly; airline assures jabs for all by May-end.” Indian Express. Updated 4 May 2021.

Mukul, Pranay. “Five senior Air India pilots die of Covid in May, vaccine drive hit by scarcity.” Indian Express. Updated 3 Jun 2021.

Our World in Data. “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Vaccinations” webpage. Accessed 29 Jun 2021.

Robinson, Martin. “British BA pilot who spent record 243 days in American hospital after being struck down by Covid tragically dies, aged 60, months after finally returning home to his family in Surrey as ‘devastated’ airline leads tributes.” Daily Mail. 10 Jun 2021.

Taylor, Margaret. “Aviation: sector experiences ‘worst year in history.” International Bar Association. 22 Apr 2021.

Saha, Poulomi. “No vaccination, oxygen support for Covid positive crew members, Air India pilots threaten to stop work.” India Today. Updated 4 May 2021. 

Yeung, Jessie and Swati Gupta. “Indian pilots fight for compensation after colleagues die of Covid-19.” CNN. 15 Jun 2021.

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