Mumbai: Jet Airways (India) Ltd pilots went on mass casual leave on Tuesday, throwing about half the carrier’s schedule into disarray and causing chaotic scenes at airports around the country.
Passengers had to fend for themselves as 186 Jet Airways flights—154 domestic and 32 international—were cancelled or otherwise affected. “About 13,000 travelling passengers have been affected. A majority of the passengers have been transferred to other carriers,” the airline said in a statement.
Trying times: A passenger at a deserted Jet Airways counter at the airport in Kolkata on Tuesday. Bikas Das/AP
One of them was Yasmin, who had flown in from Muscat to travel onwards to Vadodara where she was to be engaged on Wednesday. At Mumbai airport, she was met by a closed Jet Airways reservation counter. With flights cancelled and no alternatives available, she asked her fiancé to make the eight-hour drive from Vadodara to pick her up.
At 10pm on Monday night, 163 captains and 198 first officers of Jet Airways, 47.5% of the total 760, belonging to the pilots’ union, the National Aviators’ Guild (NAG), called in sick. Only about a quarter of the carrier’s flights had operated until noon Tuesday. A senior Jet Airways executive said the airline suffered losses of at least $4 million (Rs19.5 crore) due to the pilots’ absence.
Jet has cancelled 31 flights scheduled for Wednesday, including to Bangkok and Singapore.
Mint correspondents get you on the ground report
PR Sanjai from the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai
Harshada Karnik from the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi
Flights at JetLite (India) Ltd, the low-fare unit of Jet Airways, were unaffected.
Jet Airways, along with JetLite, has a combined fleet strength of 107 aircraft and operates nearly 449 flights daily.
The carrier termed the move to go on mass sick leave a “simulated strike” and moved an application in the Bombay high court to restrain NAG and its members from going on any form of industrial action.
The court upheld Jet’s argument and passed an order restraining members of NAG from going on an “illegal strike” and recognizing that Jet Airways is providing a “Public Utility Service”.
The airline said it will take appropriate action against pilots who violate the court’s decision. NAG claimed late Tuesday that three of its members had been fired for refusing to accede to a medical examination by the airline’s doctors. Mint could not independently confirm the development.
“It is true that the high court has passed an order, but we are not on strike,” said Sam Thomas, joint secretary of NAG. “The decision to go for sick leave is taken on individual basis and it is indefinite.”
Thomas and D. Balaraman were fired in August for forming NAG in July.
Thomas did not give details of the union’s future course, but warned of wider labour action.
“If Jet Airways is continuing with its stand and arranging other flights for transferring passengers, there could be a situation where other carriers may also not fly.” The union was ready to “go for an extreme step where we will involve unions from other airlines”, he said.
Another union member said the situation could continue on Wednesday and that NAG was trying get support from politicians such as Sanjay Nirupam of the Congress and Mamata Banerjee of the West Bengal-based Trinamool Congress.
NAG, the two-month-old pilots’ union at Jet Airways, on Monday withdrew its call for an indefinite strike, scheduled to start at midnight of Monday, saying it was pursuing talks with the management to reinstate Thomas and Balaraman.
To avoid legal complications —the regional labour commissioner had said legal action could be taken if the pilots went on strike while conciliation talks with the airline management were on—the pilots decided to take mass sick leave.
“This organized activity is a planned sabotage of operations that will damage the airline’s operations and inconvenience the travelling public,” the airline said. “Jet Airways is taking all steps to minimize the inconvenience to its guests.”
The airline also said affected travellers could avail of a full refund or rebook themselves on an alternate date without any cancellation or reissue charges.
While Jet’s loss has been other airlines’ gain, the changeover was anything but smooth. “Transfer of passengers was in complete chaos. Jet staff were not briefed properly to handle the situation,” said a senior airport manager, on the condition of anonymity.
He added that other carriers have witnessed at least 10% increase in seat occupancy and that a majority of passengers have rescheduled their flights.
The much-touted alliance between Jet Airways and its closest private sector competitor Kingfisher Airlines, also showed signs of strain.
“Though both the carriers had forged an operational alliance, there was no clearcut decision to transfer passengers to Kingfisher Airlines or co-operation on airport operations to facilitate the transfer of passengers,” said a senior Kingfisher Airlines executive. He did not want to be identified.
Grounded: Jet Airways chairman Naresh Goyal. Rajkumar/Mint
Meanwhile, Mumbai International Airport Ltd that runs Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, has asked the airline to move some of its aircraft that are likely to be on ground for a longer period to facilitate the smooth movement of other aircraft.
Jet Airways founder chairman Naresh Goyal on Tuesday met civil aviation secretary M. Madhavan Nambiar and director general of civil aviation Nasim Zaidi to brief them on the issue. The civil aviation ministry is worried about the consequences of the strike with international flights getting affected and may harden its stand if the issue is not resolved quickly.
“We are really worried. It’s also a question of our image, because Jet flies international. These kinds of cancellations cause a lot of international repercussions,” a senior civil aviation ministry official said on condition of anonymity, calling the pilots’ actions “undisciplined”.
“You can’t just have 341 pilots going on sick leave, whatever be the fault of Jet… You can’t just walk out of this thing,” he said. “We have civil aviation requirements and essentially that has to be thrown at pilots if they refuse to fly.”
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation has still not issued any guidelines on the issue but if the mass leave is prolonged it will be forced to act.
“We will look into it. If there are rules, you suspend the (pilot) licences—that of course will be final thing,” he said. This official also said that Jet Airways faces grounding if the situation continues as the flying hours of the pilots who are on duty will exceed permissible limits.
The home ministry, this aviation ministry official said, has already issued orders for Esma (Essential Service Maintenance Act), but that it is up to the states to “consider it” on merit.
A spokesperson for state-run Air India said it has “kept aircraft and crew on standby at major airports to enable the airline to mount additional flights at short notice, if required.”
“Air India is in constant touch with Jet Airways officials so that in the event of there being a need for operating special flights, Air India can do so,” Air India said in a statement.
NAG is not the first union at Jet Airways. In 1995, the airline’s ground staff formed the Bharatiya Kamgar Union that raised the issue of making temporary workers permanent.
Jet Airways also witnessed complete stoppage of work for at least six hours on 6 January 2000 when the second union— the All India Jet Airways Staff and Office Staff Association—had asked for recognition.
“It’s unfortunate that it had to come this way,” said Robey Lal, former country head of the International Air Transport Association. “Finally it’s now into a management and union scenario, like every other industry. If you take a look at Delta, it was unionized much later. It’s not been quite the same since then in terms of quality, now the management will have to think of negotiating with them.”
Lal also criticized the union. The pilots “did a miserable job of getting public support. They certainly goofed up.... They did nothing to win the sympathy of the passengers.”