Aeroflot is being inspected by Russian prosecutors as its pilots urge management to rectify what they claim are gross violations of the rules governing their work.
Cockpit crews and flight instructors who man the carrier's passenger fleet have expressed their grievances in an open letter to Aeroflot director general Vitaly Saveliev.
In it, they cite the legal ceilings on maximum working time for a commercial line pilot which is set at 80 flight hours over 28 consecutive days and 800hr per calendar year. The labour code allows airlines to increase flight hours for pilots by 10% in high seasons only if annual hours remain within limits.
But Aeroflot pilots claim that the management routinely ignores these rules: "We have to work longer hours under constant stress and on the verge of psycho-physical capabilities. This cannot but jeopardise air safety."
Pilots are often not allowed to take legitimate days off because of the lack of personnel, says Airbus A320 captain Mikhail Kutergin, adding that many of them want to leave the company and this may further increase workload on the remaining staff.
The Moscow prosecutor's office has opened an inquiry into the situation. Its official in charge of transport oversight, Yevgeny Pospelov, says on-duty hours already range between 900 and 1,100 for each A319 or A320 pilot this year.
Pilots suggest Aeroflot may face the need to ground a portion of its passenger fleet by the end of December unless it hires additional cockpit crew and adhere to the established rules.
Pospelov explains: "In terms of schedule, they work continuously like long-haul truck drivers and are apparently unwilling to do so during the upcoming high travel season for fear of committing human errors."
Following a previous inspection of Aeroflot in June, the prosecutor's office imposed a fine on the company for systematically infringing labour laws - a practice which Pospelov says is commonplace at many Russian airlines.
"Owing to a growing shortage of pilots, they set their work schedules in such a way that there is effectively not enough time left to rest and vacate," he explains.
A spokesman for Aeroflot, however, says the carrier is seeking to bring work rules for its pilots in line with global standards because it uses mainly Western aircraft types. To this end, its management has applied to the authorities for assistance in reviewing the current regulations.
Under draft legislation submitted to the transport ministry, maximum flight time for pilots on aircraft with a two-member cockpit crew, providing their written consent, could be extended up to 90 hours during 28 days and 900 hours per calendar year.