Mumbai/ New Delhi: In an attempt to force the government to cut fuel taxes and airport charges, private airlines that collectively lost $2 billion (Rs9,640 crore today) in the last fiscal year threatened to suspend operations for a day on 18 August. Critics see this as an attempt to hold the government to ransom and lead to similar demands from other loss-making industries.
“If the government is not willing to listen to our demands, we might go for an indefinite suspension of operations,” said Vijay Mallya, chairman of the India’s largest private carrier Kingfisher Airlines.
Private airlines Jet Airways (India) Ltd, Kingfisher Airlines Ltd, InterGlobe Aviation Pvt. Ltd-run Indigo, SpiceJet Ltd and GoAir India Pvt. Ltd met in Jet Airways’ Mumbai headquarters on Friday to announce the strike, the first by airlines in the country. Chennai-based Paramount Airways Pvt. Ltd did not participate in the meeting.
National carrier Air India will not ground its planes, though its chairman and managing director Arvind Jadhav participated in the Friday parleys of the Federation of Indian Airlines (FIA), a lobbying group. It also promised to increase flights on 18 August and deploy more aircraft in case the strike is not resolved.
“We were compelled to take this decision. Though it is a member, Air India was not part of this decision to suspend operations on 18 August,” said FIA secretary general Anil Baijal.
An Air India spokesperson said, “There was no decision taken by FIA on strike as long as our chairman was there.” He did not say whether Jadhav was consulted on this decision to go for a strike.
M. Thiagarajan, managing director of Paramount Airways, could not be reached and a spokesperson for the airline offered no comment.
“We need help to stay in the business,” said Naresh Goyal, founder chairman of Jet Airways, the country’s second largest private carrier.
International services of these carriers will not be affected since jet fuel is comparatively cheaper overseas. The private carriers said they will refund the tickets for domestic travel on 18 August.
“We waited, waited and waited...but nothing happened,” said Hitesh Patel, executive director of Kingfisher Airlines.
The collective action comes at a time when the government is close to unveiling a bailout plan for Air India.
“A Web banner will go up on our website in support of our other private partners and we do hope to see a positive response from the ministry. All the bookings (for 18 August) will be done subject to cancellation,” said a GoAir spokesperson, hinting that the strike may not happen.
Critics slammed the decision of the private airlines, saying that the strike should be dealt with in the same way as the truckers’ strike was. “It’s another transport business. There is a thing called the Essential Services Act. In early 1999, ATC (air traffic controllers) went on strike and had to go back to work,” said Sanat Kaul, former representative of India to the International Civil Aviation Organization, and a former civil servant in the aviation ministry, adding the government can take strict action after examining the legalities.
“The point is, it will hit the economy badly for that one day. Many passengers will stay home, take the trains or a long-distance bus to commute. Airports will lose out on landing/parking charges, their taxi drivers will not get the day’s wages, hotels will not have guests, airline caterers will have to serve lesser meals,” said Robey Lal, former country head for the International Air Transport Association, a lobbying group. “And that’s what they are trying to do. They have a key role in the economy, that’s what they are trying to prove.”
“The government understands the problem being faced by the aviation sector. However, the government does not support any move that will inconvenience the travelling public...we advise the airlines to engage with the government,” civil aviation minister Praful Patel said in a statement from Mauritius.
PTI contributed to this story.