New Delhi: After cancelling all flights on Monday, Kingfisher Airlines Ltd stopped selling tickets for Tuesday and declared a lockout till Thursday, as staff unrest disrupted services over the weekend.
For those trying to book a Tuesday ticket online, the carrier returned a “no flights found” message.
It is not clear when the airline will resume services. The company offered no comment.
Most ground engineers and pilots have stopped working since Sunday, leading to a virtual grounding of the airline’s fleet. Employees have not been paid salaries for seven months.
Shares of the Vijay Mallya-owned airline, which has $3 billion in debt, dropped as much as 4.78% in Mumbai trading, erasing the gains it made after India liberalized rules to allow foreign airlines to buy stakes in local carriers. Rivals Jet Airways (India) Ltd and SpiceJet Ltd rose 0.09% and 2.02%, respectively.
“The question is whether we will be able to go back to operations after two days,” a company executive said, requesting anonymity. “I doubt it. Airlines just don’t come back after not operating for two days.”
In an email to employees, Kingfisher Airlines chief executive Sanjay Aggarwal said the company had entered into a “partial lockout” on account of the strike and “a series of protracted and unabated incidents of violence, criminal intimidation, assault, wrongful restraint and other illegal acts by a section of non-management engineering staff”.
He said the management will review the situation on Thursday or whenever the strike is called off.
From being India’s second largest domestic airline by passengers in 2009, Kingfisher is already reduced to being the smallest, with just 3.2% market share, operating just nine aircraft in September.
Mallya, who is in France, posted a tweet on the micro-blogging site in the early hours on Monday, minutes after Kingfisher said in a statement that employees had fought with each other.
“The media are having a great time slamming me. Let them continue their wild and inaccurate speculation. I will prove all of them wrong,” Mallya said on his Twitter account, without elaborating on his plans.
Kingfisher’s flights out of Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore will now need prior approval from the aviation regulator.
“We have told our regional offices that every time a Kingfisher flight takes off, they need to ensure it is signed off by a licensed engineer,” Arun Mishra, director-general of civil aviation, said in a phone interview.
Mishra said he had asked Aggarwal to appear before him in Delhi to explain the status of the airline on Tuesday, a national holiday for the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Aggarwal, who was on vacation in southern India, returned to Mumbai on Monday.
The deteriorating situation could have an impact on safety, an aviation expert said.
“Safety is most important and that has taken the back-seat as far as Kingfisher is concerned,” said Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety consultant and a member of a government-appointed civil aviation safety advisory council.
Mishra said Kingfisher was facing “industrial unrest” and insisted there was nothing “unsafe” at the airline.
“We have just finished an audit of the company,” he said.
Talks between a group of its pilots and chief financial officer (CFO) A. Raghunathan failed on Monday morning.
“About 25-30 of us met the CFO today. He has said ‘do whatever you want to do. We cannot pay. The only way we can pay is if you were flying. But you are not’,” a pilot leading the protest said, requesting anonymity.
Kingfisher earlier in the day said it expects flight cancellations across its network on Monday following clashes between groups of workers.
“A section of employees of Kingfisher Airlines has not been reporting to work over the last fortnight, and over the past two days, they have been threatening and even manhandling the other employees who are reporting to work as usual,” the carrier said in a statement.
Kingfisher passengers were unable to disembark from planes in Delhi and Mumbai after landing on Sunday following clashes among staff over one group having allegedly been paid long-delayed salaries.
Shakti Lumba, a former vice-president with low-fare airline IndiGo, said the highest risk to flight safety is “subtle pilot incapacitation”, similar to “subtle corporate incapacitation”.
“Kingfisher is a classic example of subtle corporate incapacitation with resultant grave air safety implications,” he said.
The aviation ministry and the regulator were not being fair and equitable in the handling of Kingfisher’s airline permit, he said, citing the example of airline firm MDLR, whose license was not renewed by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) under similar conditions.
“We can shut down the airline if DGCA says it is not airworthy,” aviation minister Ajit Singh said on Monday.
Current rules say airlines with less than five aircraft in operation cannot be run as a scheduled airline.