New Delhi: Two years after a four-day strike led to massive flight disruptions across the country, worker unions at Airports Authority of India Ltd (AAI) have resorted again to what they call a “non-cooperation” movement from midnight Tuesday at 122 AAI-run airports.
AAI is the government’s airports regulator and, through an eponymous unit, owns interest ranging from minority to 100% in domestic airports.
While the 2006 strike was prompted by the government’s decision to hand over the New Delhi and Mumbai airports—which account for half of the country’s air traffic—to private consortia on 30-year leases, Tuesday’s strike has been triggered by New Delhi’s decision to shut down two AAI-run airports at Hyderabad and Bangalore this weekend and next month, respectively, making way for new airports that are majority owned by private investors.
The deadlock between the unions, the AAI management and the civil aviation ministry officials could not be resolved at a meeting on Monday, where Centre of Indian Trade Unions’ M.K. Pandhe and Dipankar Mukherjee and Airports Authority Employees’ Union (AAEU) general secretary M.K. Ghoshal discussed issues for more than 30 minutes with AAI chairman K. Ramalingam and civil aviation secretary Ashok Chawla. The unions were told that the ministry was bound by the government’s legal agreement with the managements at the new Hyderabad and Bangalore airports and not much could be done at the ministry level, according to a senior government official present at the meeting, who did not wished to be named.
Bone of contention: The new Bangalore airport. Tuesday’s strike has been triggered by New Delhi’s decision to shut down the AAI-run Hyderabad and Bangalore airports, which will make way for new airports. (Hemant Mishra / Mint)
“They haven’t said a no or yes,” AAEU’s Ghoshal said after the meeting ended, referring to whether the government will look into not shutting down the two airports. “So, we will go by the letter (strike notice submitted to civil aviation minister Praful Patel),” he said, without specifying until when the non-cooperation will continue. Accor-ding to a notification issued la-te on Monday, the current Hyderabad airport will close do-wn at midnight Sunday when operations will be shifted to the new GMR Hyderabad International Airport Ltd or GHIAL-run airport.
On Tuesday evening, K.N. Srivastava, a joint secretary in the civil aviation ministry, said the ministry, AAI and workers’ unions were still in talks to resolve the strike late evening.
Worker unions say closure of the old airports is going to shrink revenue sources at the state-owned AAI, which develops airports across the country with little budgetary support from the Union government. “If you continue to cut down revenue, close down airports one by one, what will be the future of AAI,” asked AAEU president S.R. Santhanam, who works at the Hyderabad airport.
Under an agreement signed between the civil aviation ministry and the private operators in 2004, the Hyderabad and Bangalore airports, which generate about Rs120 crore each annually, will close down for the general public, but remain operational for high security movements and for use by the Indian Air Force. The GHIAL-run airport at Hyderabad begins operations on 16 March.
The AAI workers’ union wants the Centre to revisit the agreements with the GMR- and Siemens AG-led managements at the Hyderabad and Bangalore airports, respectively,?given?that?the?passenger traffic estimates have overshot projected estimates, thereby negating the need to shut the existing airports. Airlines such as Deccan Aviation Ltd-run Deccan and SpiceJet Ltd, too, have argued for keeping both the airports open.
At least 620 employees—including about 500 at Hyderabad—are likely to be affected as a result of the closure of the two old airports.
The Delhi state government, meanwhile, has invoked rules under the Essential Services Maintenance Act that will make any strike by airport workers illegal. While worker groups and unions have stopped short of calling it a strike this time to escape punitive action, passengers could still face problems at several airports if the industrial action gets prolonged.
“They are going on non-cooperation and technically not on a strike. Most probably this is?to get (away from) court directions,” said Gurcharan Bha-tura, a former AAI official and now secretary general of Foundation for Aviation and Sustai-nable Tourism, a Delhi think-tank. “There could be dislocation of services here and there. That can create quite an uncomfortable situation.”
Operations of air traffic controllers at airports, who control take-offs and landings of planes, will not be affected since such staff will continue work during the strike. Andrew Harrison, chief operating officer of Delhi International Airport (P) Ltd, said while back-up plans in New Delhi and Mumbai were in place, the main concern was on how airline operations would be affected to and from smaller airports in the country.
Former civil aviation minister and a spokesperson for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party Rajiv Pratap Rudy said the government lacked a holistic approach. The new airports should not operate in a monopoly-like situation “such that they dictate terms of airport charges, increasing the burden on passengers in the absence of a regulatory body”, he said.