Mumbai: Key office-bearers of the pilots’ union at Air India Ltd said on Friday they were returning to Mumbai from Delhi as neither the airline’s management nor the aviation ministry showed interest in resolving the dispute behind their 11-day-old strike. They had camped in Delhi to meet the airline’s management and civil aviation minister Ajit Singh to discuss their demand that only pilots belonging to Air India before it was merged with Indian Airlines be trained to fly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, as the orders for the jets were placed before the merger.
Singh has maintained that the state-run airline’s management or officials of his ministry will talk with the Indian Pilots’ Guild only if it calls off the strike unconditionally. In an interview, he said the government will not hesitate to reduce Air India’s international flights if the strike continued too long. “A pilot’s job is to ferry passengers. They should be worrying about passengers first,” Singh said. Edited excerpts:
Image loss: Singh says the strike has dented the credibility of Air India. (India Today Images)
What is the root cause of this strike?
One could say the merger of erstwhile Indian Airlines and Air India was one of the reasons. There are several human resources issues unresolved among the pilots of both the sides. There are differences in their salary structures, perks and even promotion schedules. The differences are not just with the pilots; the case is similar for the engineers of both entities.
You said that in retrospect the merger was not a right decision.
In retrospect, I could say many things are not right. Whatever I have done in my personal capacity may not be right in retrospect. But those were right decisions then in that context. What I was telling was that the human resources integration and other things were not complete in this merger.
How will you tackle this?
To study the issues of human resources integration of Indian Airlines and Air India, the government has appointed an independent committee headed by justice D.M. Dharmadhikari. The committee examined issues about the disparities in human resources issues, including pay parity, working conditions and seniority. So in any case, we were about to talk to the employees about these disparities. But before that, the pilots went on a strike.
What is the update on the Dharmadhikari committee’s report?
The Dharmadhikari committee submitted its recommendations on 31 January. Following that, we have constituted a three-member committee to study these recommendations and its timely implementation. We are gathering some figures from Air India about the potential impact once these recommendations are implemented. This would have addressed all issues relating to human resources. In fact, from January 2012 onwards, Air India is hiring pilots under a new cadre with new terms and conditions.
What are the demands of the pilots?
Pilots of the erstwhile Air India, that is the Indian Pilots’ Guild, wanted a promotion to commander in six months instead of 10 years. They wanted a promotion to a notional commander in case there was no vacancy. The pilots also wanted to travel by first class when on duty and (the payments of) some outstanding dues. We were willing to talk about all of these. But the pilots went on strike before that without giving a proper notice.
The pilots claim otherwise.
The Delhi high court said the strike is illegal. More recently, a two-judge bench of the Delhi high court rejected the pilots’ plea challenging the earlier verdict. This is a peak time for airlines and the pilots should have stayed away from striking work. The government recently approved a Rs 30,000 crore package for Air India for the next 10 years. Now, this strike has dented the credibility of Air India. The pilots have not just jeopardized their jobs, but that of all Air India employees. They should have some loyalty towards passengers and Air India. How will they get their dues and salaries if Air India does not survive? They should have met me before going on a strike.
Will you consider having pilots of the Indian Air Force fly Air India planes, like it is done in Western countries to fight such strikes?
No. Indian Air Force pilots are not trained to fly planes of Air India. And training will take more time.
What is the damage to Air India because of the strike?
The strike has resulted in revenue loss of Rs 10-15 crore a day. The strike has already done damage to Air India. The carrier is already incurring huge losses on long-haul routes. Many of the international routes are losing money. For example, the Toronto leg of Air India is losing Rs 300 crore a year. International flights make money when corporate travellers opt for business and first class. But they want certainty.
Can the international routes be revived?
Though 60% of Air India’s revenues come from the international operations, nearly 80% of the losses are contributed by the same international routes. Also, the share of Air India in carrying international passengers is very minimal.
Will you consider shutting the international operations?
No, we are not planning to shut down international operations. But if the pilots are not coming back, what can we do? We may downsize the international operations.
So what is the way forward to end the strike? The pilots say neither the ministry nor the Air India management is taking initiatives to hold discussions.
As far as the civil aviation ministry is concerned, this strike is illegal. They did not talk to us. Even their talks with the Air India management are yet to finish. We are always willing to talk once they call off the strike. We will not be vindictive to the pilots. They should understand the feelings of the passengers. The other day I saw a passenger telling television channels that he will advise his children not to travel by Air India even if he was dying. This is sad.
The strike will enter its 12th day on Saturday. Where will it end?
After 14 days, Indian Air Force doctors will examine the sick pilots. If they are not sick, they will lose their flying licences. It will take them another month to get their licences back.
Will you consider privatizing Air India in this context?
No. Privatization of Air India is not on the agenda as of now. Nothing can deter the eight-year turnaround plan by the government for Air India