New Delhi: Air India’s newly constituted strategy group will meet on Monday to discuss a turnaround strategy for the beleaguered national carrier and take stock of the labour unrest that hit its operations last week.
But employees and aviation experts warn the sacking and suspension of technical staff in the wake of the unrest could undermine any future strategy the National Aviation Co. of India Ltd-run airline formulates.
In March, the carrier had formed audit, finance, strategy and human resource panels headed by its new independent board members—including Anand Mahindra, vice-chairman and managing director of the Mahindra Group; former Indian Air Force chief Fali H. Major; Ambuja Realty Group chairman Harshavardhan Neotia; and Amit Mitra, secretary-general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Monday’s meeting is likely to be attended by senior civil aviation ministry and Air India officials. It will also discuss flight schedules for the next year, two airline officials said on condition of anonymity.
In the past fortnight, the airline has seen a crash that killed 158 passengers and crew in Mangalore and a strike by engineers and ground staff. The strike was in response to Air India ordering its staff not to speak to the media after an engineer openly raised the issue of safety.
Since then, the airline has terminated 58 staffers and suspended 24, including 15 engineers. It has also derecognized two powerful unions—the All India Aircraft Engineers Association (AIAEA) and the Air Corporation Employees Union (Aceu).
Air India has 31,000 employees, with another 10,000 working on contract. It is saddled with debt and accumulated losses. A Rs1,200 crore equity infusion by the government for the ongoing fiscal depends on how it meets cost cutting targets.
An Air India official said those who have been sacked could stir up trouble; their offices have been sealed and their airport passes revoked. Ending the spate of sackings “will be very much on our minds” in Monday’s meeting, said the official, who didn’t want to be named.
Another airline official said a demoralized workforce was a cause for concern, particularly because the focus should have been on safety issues after the Mangalore crash.
Aviation experts said while termination of ground staff was understandable, sacking technically qualified engineers en masse could cause long-term harm to the carrier.
“Engineers are highly paid, highly skilled and often in short supply. It’s not like cabin crew where they can be trained in a matter of weeks to do a job. If Air India were to take such action, it would not go down well with remaining staff or indeed other workers. If engineers aren’t safe from the axe, just who is?” asked Saj Ahmad, a London-based aerospace analyst. “Airlines may outsource or even spin off engineering capability, but it’s not been a common trait to fire, en masse, engineers.”
Former chairman P.C. Sen said Air India should have tried talking to its staff instead of sacking them summarily.
“If you consider the events of the last few years, to my mind the...strike is the reaction of a workforce that is extremely demoralized and angry, and wishes to use any opportunity to strike back at the management. It needs to be recalled that whereas Indian Airlines’ unions were on strike at least once a year, every year prior to 1994, from 1994 to 1998, there were no strikes, and not even ‘Go Slows’,” said Sen.
Indian Airlines and Air India have been merged.
“Well-run organizations all over the world are placing very high premiums on HRD (human resource development) and interaction with employees. This is what has been missing in Air India,” Sen said.
That may require giving employees a greater say in decision-making, said Shashank Nigam, a Singapore-based aviation analyst.
“Employees should be involved in turning around the company. It’s their company after all, many of them have been working there for generations,” he said. “At the same time, employees must understand that they must take the bitter pill if the airline health is to improve. They can’t take the airline for granted and believe that it can never shut down.”