Jet, pilots fail to break impasse

Jet, pilots fail to break impasse

Mumbai: India’s largest carrier by market value Jet Airways (India) Ltd cancelled about half its flights for a second day on Wednesday, as pilots failed to reach a compromise with the management on ending a dispute that sparked an undeclared strike, with aviators going on sick leave en masse.

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Flights are set to be cancelled on Thursday as well amid the crisis that’s causing daily losses of about $4 million (Rs19.4 crore). Other airlines benefited, with some same-day fares registering a sharp increase.

The Bombay high court issued a contempt notice to the pilots’ union of Jet Airways for continuing the strike despite a retraining order issued on Tuesday.

The carrier’s domestic bookings dropped to 14,000 from 23,000, while international bookings fell by 1,000 from 10,500. On Wednesday, Jet Airways cancelled 32 international flights and 134 domestic flights after 432 pilots out of a total 760 reported sick.

Although the management and the National Aviators’ Guild (NAG) have said they are open to talks, no formal discussions have been scheduled nor has a time frame been set to resolve the dispute.

“This will have far-reaching repercussions" for Jet’s finances, said a senior executive at the airline on condition of anonymity. “It will not be able to pay salaries in September on time if the strike continues. This will also have an impact on payments to vendors."

Pilots’ strike leaves passengers stranded (Audio story)

Chief operating officer Hameed Ali said pilots will have to furnish a medical certificate to extend sick leave beyond 48 hours. Pilot Suhail Jain was fired on Tuesday for refusing to let Jet’s doctors examine him at his residence.

Mint could not immediately independently confirm whether the firing was legal. Under the terms of conciliation talks undertaken by the labour commissioner’s office, the airline cannot fire anyone until negotiations are concluded.

NAG president Girish Kaushik and Jet Airways founder-chairman Naresh Goyal are in New Delhi, meeting officials as the stir intensifies. Kaushik is trying to gain support from political parties and other unions while Goyal is asking the government to intervene by invoking the Essential Services Maintenance Act, according to a person close to the development, who declined to be named. “We are talking to pilots to find an amicable solution to this issue. We are ready to listen and our doors are open," Ali said.

The airline didn’t say if it had a strategy in place for dealing with the continuation of the dispute. “The situation is extremely fluid and we will dynamically address challenges," said chief commercial officer Sudheer Raghavan. “We have opened a crisis centre to disseminate information to customers as fast as possible. We are sending out SMSes and accommodating passengers on other flights." He said Jet has prepared a contingency plan, to be reviewed every hour based on the number of pilots reporting for work.

NAG joint secretary Sam Thomas said the union had not received any communication for talks to resolve the issue. “Our demand is just to reinstate the retrenched pilots. For that we are ready to fight as long as it takes."

Thomas is one of two pilots—the other is D. Balaraman—fired in August for forming the union, the immediate trigger for the current stand-off. Both claim the management has not given them any reason for the retrenchment.

Raghavan said his airline is willing to sit across the table and talk but “pilots cannot blackmail the carrier by resorting to such a mass leave".

Pilots of JetLite (India) Ltd, the low-fare carrier of Jet Airways, have not joined the labour action. That may change, Thomas said. “In spirit, JetLite pilots have said that they will support us," he said. “We have got feelers from others unions in Jet Airways including cabin crew and ground staff."

The dispute stems from the better treatment of foreign pilots, Jain said. “We were always willing to take a pay cut, but all that we want is it should be equal across the board," said Thomas, adding that Indian pilots took a pay cut in December. “Expat pilots are enjoying all benefits while we were asked to take a pay cut. We need to be first-class citizens, at least in our country."

Jet pilots formed an association in 1998 to look into issues such as salaries, allowances and flying hours. It was not a labour union and Jet Airways had signed at least two wage agreements with it. Later, Jet Airways refused to negotiate with it, leading to the formation of NAG in July.

PTI contributed to this story.