New Delhi/ Mumbai: The strike by pilots of flag carrier Air India intensified on Friday, with the warring employees saying they were prepared for arrests, but would not return to work until the government assured them of meaningful talks to settle their issues.
No such assurance came from the government or state-run Air India Ltd till Friday.
The strike entered its third day, leaving Air India passengers stranded across the country with just 50 flights operating. The airline normally operates 320 flights daily.
Members of the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (Icpa) and management pilots, totalling around 840, or nearly half the airline’s pilot workforce, have sought a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into corruption by Air India’s top management as well as into wage parity within the organization.
“We are more than willing to go (to) jail. Nearly 31,000 Air India employees will also be ready to court arrest because we are serious about saving the national carrier from ruin,” said Rishab Kapur, Icpa’s general secretary. “We are willing to get back to work provided the government assures (us) that they will look into the corruption issue raised by us and order a CBI inquiry.”
The government remained defiant, adopting a no-talks stance till the strike is ended.
A senior airline official with a private carrier, who has negotiated industrial disputes in the past, said the government and Air India’s management are confused over the steps to be taken and “are twiddling thumbs”. The official asked not to be identified.
Air India sent text messages to the pilots asking them to return to work by 5pm on Friday or face termination.
If they failed to return to work, the “management is at liberty to take any action as deemed fit, including termination of services. This is without prejudice to any further action management may take under any other law of the land”, the airline said in the text message.
Aviation minister Vayalar Ravi held discussions with Air India chairman and managing director Arvind Jadhav on Friday afternoon, but no statements were issued till late evening.
None of the 840 pilots had joined work by evening.
“They should prepare 800 termination letters,” said V.K. Bhalla, an executive pilot at Air India.
The carrier has sacked nine pilots and six have been suspended so far.
An Air India official said only pilots at its domestic operations were involved in the strike. Its other three arms are Air India Express, international operations and Alliance Air.
“That will be cleaned up. All contracts will be renegotiated with them,” this official said, referring to the 840 pilots.
Air India, which lost Rs 19 crore a day in the first half of fiscal 2011, said in a statement that its revenue loss on the third day of the strike was about Rs 12 crore. Its total revenue loss over the three days of the strike was Rs 26.5 crore.
The airline expects an equity infusion of Rs 1,200 crore from the government this fiscal year.
“I haven’t seen this kind of will and anger” in two decades of service, a management pilot at the airline said. “We will not fly those machines. We will not be treated as a second-rate citizen and see the company decimated by corruption with each passing day.”
Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said the attitude of repression by Air India’s management was wrong and called for immediate talks to end the impasse.
“Irrespective of the merits of the demands raised by striking pilots, we strongly object to the way the Air India management has derecognized the pilots’ unions. Everybody has the right to organize unions. It is a fundamental right,” Karat said. “We demand that they should sit with pilots and resolve the issue.”
Air India has set up a 24-hour control centre, nick-named the “war room”, to monitor the situation. To accommodate stranded passengers, it has introduced its widebody Boeing 747 planes, better known as the “Jumbo”, on the Mumbai-Delhi route.
“We are also contemplating to rationalize the foreign operations marginally so as to introduce widebody Boeing 777 on domestic routes. We may club two India-UK flights into one and release one B777 on metro routes. All metro airports are capable of handling this mammoth plane,” said another Air India executive.
The Delhi high court, which had asked the pilots to end the strike, has decided to initiate contempt proceedings against Icpa leaders. Its next hearing on the matter is expected to be on Monday.
PTI contributed to this story.