New Delhi: Pilots of Air India (AI) stayed away from work for the seventh day, the longest by a pilots’ union of the airline in more than a decade even as the government maintained that talks could start only when the strike is called off.
Some 840 pilots of Indian Commercial Pilots Association (Icpa) and executive pilots, nearly half the airline’s pilot workforce, have been on strike since last Tuesday, demanding an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation into how Air India ran up a debt of $8 billion (Rs 35,440 crore) in four years.
The pilots, who used to work for Indian Airlines before 2007, also want parity in wages, promised when the government decided to merge the state-owned airline with another state-owned airline Air India.
Air India said nine out of every 10 flights it operates within the country have been cancelled, even as the striking pilots continued to defy the Delhi high court’s order asking them to return to work.
A heated hearing in the court cooled off with an adjournment to Tuesday, after hard bargaining between the bench and counsels for Air India and the striking pilots failed to result in any settlement.
The pilots are continuing their strike in defiance of an order from justice Gita Mittal issued last week asking them to return to work in “larger public interest”.
Justices Badar Durrez Ahmed and Veena Birbal tolerated much drama as the airline’s management and the pilots’ union attempted several permutations for a result inside and outside the court. Although the court repeatedly asked for the pilots to call off the strike, it did not issue contempt notices on Monday.
While asking the pilots to call off the strike, the court sought an assurance from Air India that it would reinstate all those who have been either fired or transferred since 27 April.
Air India’s lawyer Lalit Bhasin did not make any assurances. He said the management would “seriously consider” reinstating those it had fired, but could make nothing more than an oral commitment on the same.
The observations of the judges suggested that the bench was split on the matter. Justice Ahmed said the negotiations could not begin unless the strike was called off. When the pilots did not relent, he said to their counsel: “They (pilots) are trying to act tough? You don’t want the court to act tough, do you?”
Justice Birbal, meanwhile, prodded Air India to commit that it would take back its employees if they called off the strike. “Give them some assurance that you will reinstate them. Keep your orders (of expelling or transferring the pilots) in abeyance,” she suggested to the airline’s lawyer, who did not relent.
The government and the airline’s management have said they will not talk to the pilots till they return to work.
The United Progressive Alliance’s main rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has termed the position of the government and the airline’s management a conspiracy to shut down the airline to help the private carriers.
“It is a well-planned conspiracy to shut down the airline, or does the government want to privatize Air India?” BJP spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy asked on Sunday. “This is an alibi for a cover-up.”
BJP has sought an explanation from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the mismanagement of the carrier and alleged that the airline was being run by the Prime Minister’s Office instead of the aviation ministry.
“We will not surrender to them,” aviation minister Vayalar Ravi said, reiterating his government’s stand on Monday evening at a press conference.
Director general of civil aviation Bharat Bhushan called an all-airline meeting on Monday and asked airlines not to charge inflated fares to take advantage of the strike at Air India. Airlines file maximum fares chargeable for every route at the start of every month on their website and to the aviation regulator.
Private airlines will also temporarily be allowed to start flights on routes which Air India flies.
“In the wake of ongoing pilots’ strike, I have decided to allow them to fly on temporary basis on the routes on which Air India has cancelled flights,” Bhushan said Monday. “I have asked them to come by 5pm tomorrow (Tuesday) with the route plan.”
PTI contributed to this story.