Air India employees have been protesting against the discriminating policies of the management and the Government at large by going on a strike from 7 May 2012. The state-run airline has been cash-strapped from its inception, ridden with debts and losses, yet the UPA
At a time when the Indian economy is in the doldrums with erroneous economic policies and scams hitting the ruling UPA government like a tornado, the losses incurred due to the recent strike of Air India (AI) pilots from 7 May 2012 onwards till now can be seen as yet another example of mismanagement by the Government. Due to this strike, Air India suffered a loss of nearly Rs. 500 crore till date which continues to grow day by day. A total of 424-odd pilots went on to join the strike in the month of May to protest against unpaid salaries and arrears that AI owes them for their services for the month of February and March. The pilots also went on strike because they were agitated by the Government’s decision of the training schedule fixed for Indian Airlines pilots for the newly acquired Boeing 787 Dreamliners. The AI pilots saw this as a bias against them and went on strike under the banner of a unified guild named Indian Pilots Guild (IPG). IPG was immediately derecognised by the Government in May and the Government also sacked 101 pilots from among the 424 agitating pilots. Union Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh claimed that as far as the government is
concerned the strike is over and the agitating pilots should join their duties with immediate effect.
Despite some tough talk by the Civil Aviation Minister, it seems his threats are largely empty ones. The main reason is that pilots are still ‘workmen’, and hence they do have a legal right to industrial action. As for the pilots, they know their position is weak they neither have public support nor the ability to seriously threaten anything when Air India is on government life-support. Although the pilots have expressed a desire to return to work if all their sacked colleagues are taken back, this demand is unlikely to be met by the government in a hurry. About 424 pilots, affiliated to the IPG, have been reporting sick since 7 May, and this has virtually crippled Air India’s international operations. The airline is now running a truncated schedule with the help of executive pilots.
The ministry appears to be grappling with a strike without having any clear answers in sight. Since the strike – which the pilots call agitation – began, the ministry has routinely held out threats. These include freezing arrears in salary and allowances unless pilots return to work, shutting down international operations temporarily to prune loss-making routes, removing striking commanders from the ‘workmen’ category and hiring new pilots. But none of these threats has worked and some are anyway impractical. Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh had held discussions with Attorney
General G.E. Vahanvati on the matter. Under the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act, highly-paid pilots are currently classified along with other blue-collar workers as ‘workmen’ and, therefore, nothing stops them from going on strike. Even the threat of recruiting new pilots could turn out to be an empty one. A report points out that out of 5000-odd unemployed pilots in the country, only 500 are jet aircraft type-rated commanders/pilots, while the rest are just holders of commercial pilots licences (CPLs). And for AI to normalise international operations, type-rated commanders are required, not CPL holders. So even if Air India is able to hire these 500 unemployed jet aircraft type-rated commanders/pilots, they are unlikely to be given command of the aircraft straightaway.
Then on the question of the constant loss-making routes, aviation experts wonder why these flights are being operated at all and a ministry official opined that long-haul flights account for Rs 5800 crore of the net loss each year for AI. Flights to Toronto, Chicago and two more long-haul flights do not even meet the cost of the aviation fuel needed to fly them. Out of the 45 flights a day, which was the normal schedule for AI, only two actually made profit. Due to the recent turmoil caused by the strike, the number of flights has been reduced from 45 to 38 and flights to several international estinations like Seoul, Honk Kong and a few destinations of the United States have been dropped. Meanwhile, Air India has begun the process of hiring about 100 pilots but this will be a long-drawn-out affair. The ministry is looking for qualified commanders and co-pilots for flying Boeing 747/777/737 planes. In a letter to Singh, which was also sent to the
Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) last week, the executive pilots have said the present flying schedules cannot be maintained and could jeopardise the safety of passengers as well as crew.
The Civil Aviation Minister said that the airlines management has to decide for how long they want to keep the striking pilots on their payroll when they had not been working for over a month now.‘It is for the Air India management to take
action now. These pilots have not come to work for more than 30 days. It is an illegal strike. They have defied the High Court,’ he said.He said that the Government had repeatedly requested the pilots to come and join the airline. ‘We have requested them again and again to come and join the airline. But they did not.’He also said that the Air India crisis is such that the airline cannot even pay its employees. ‘Government has provided a package of Rs 30,000 crore which will be based on their performance. But it doesn’t seem they are interested in it, because recently they said they’ll not even accept the Dharmadhikari report.’
From its inception in 1985, Air India incurred a loss of Rs. 43,000 crore and it has a debt of Rs. 20,000 crore. The Government has pumped in Rs. 1200 crore at the beginning of June for the cash-strapped company to pay for its regular operating expenditure and employee salaries. Air India CMD Rohit Nandan also said that due to the lowering of the truncated flights to international destinations the company has been saving Rs. 5 crore as fuel cost on a daily basis but have been making loses simultaneously because most of its big aircraft have been grounded to the extent of Rs. 1015 crore a day.It is evident that the Air India crisis happened due to the gross negligence of the Government of India. The Government did not pay due attention to sort out the economic and structural problems of the airlines which have been piling up over the years unlike another state owned organisation Indian Airlines. One and a half years ago when Indian Airlines went on strike, it did not take the Government more than one and a half weeks to resolve the
problems with the Indian Airlines and bring it back to its operating levels. But the step-motherly attitude to the biggest state-owned airline, i.e., Air India have raised several incriminating questions in the minds of its agitating employees and also the public at large towards a greater conspiracy involving a nexus of the high-ranking Government officials as well as Air India. If the Government does not take pragmatic steps to resolve the issue, then the country and the world per se will remember how the great Maharaja who is the mascot of the state-owned airline turned into a pauper due to the utterly imbecilic decisions and shortsightedness of the UPA government.