Kingfisher pilots return to cockpits; Air India strike still on

Kingfisher pilots return to cockpits; Air India strike still on

Mumbai:Air India Ltd sacked 25 more pilots on Friday as a strike that’s costing the flag carrier 12 crore daily entered the fourth day. Pilots of Kingfisher Airlines Ltd, meanwhile, ended their walkout and returned to work after chairman and managing director Vijay Mallya assured them that their salaries would be paid by Tuesday.

Air India on Friday cancelled flights from Delhi to London, Chicago, New York, Toronto, Frankfurt, Paris, Hong Kong and Osaka, and from Mumbai to Jeddah, London and Newark, as well as several domestic flights, as nearly 350 pilots reported sick as a part of the strike. The Air India management, which has taken a tough stand, has maintained that it will talk to the pilots only after they withdraw the strike unconditionally.

Pilots representing the Indian Pilots’ Guild (IPG) are demanding that training on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet planes be restricted to pilots belonging to the erstwhile Air India, which merged in 2007 with state-run Indian Airlines into a new entity called National Aviation Co. of India Ltd that was later renamed Air India Ltd.

The Supreme Court had intervened in the matter and ruled that an equal number of pilots from Air India and Indian Airlines receive training to fly the Dreamliner, but IPG maintains that because the aircraft were ordered before the merger, only pilots of the erstwhile Air India should receive the training.

On Wednesday, the Delhi high court said the action of pilots of Air India was illegal. As the strike continued, the airline on Thursday moved a contempt petition in the Supreme Court, which the apex court refused to entertain.

The guild’s president, Jitendra Awhad, said the Supreme Court had asked the airline management to amicably sort out the matter. “We are ready for discussions. It is the airline management that is not taking the initiative," he said.

Awhad added that pilots will continue to report sick as their career progression is being affected by the current situation.

A senior Air India executive, requesting anonymity, said the pilot stir has put Air India back in financial trouble at a time when it had been trying to turn around with the help of a government bailout. He said the carrier is losing at least 12 crore a day owing to this strike.

In mid-April, the government announced a 30,000 crore bailout package for 10 years for the airline that had total debt of 43,777 crore as on 31 December. It has accumulated losses of 20,000 crore over the last four fiscal years.

“While the pilots of Kingfisher Airlines going on strike on account of non-payment of salaries and other dues for many months may have some legitimacy, the same cannot be said for the striking Air India pilots," said M.S. Balakrishnan, a former director (finance) at the erstwhile Indian Airlines.

Kingfisher Airlines employees have not been paid since January and a promise that their dues would be cleared by 9 May wasn’t kept, two Kingfisher Airlines executives said on condition of anonymity. That prompted the pilot action that disrupted some flights on Thursday and Friday before Mallya pacified the protesters.

Balakrishnan said the action of the Air India pilots call for punitive steps. “The recalcitrant action of the pilots will ruin whatever little trust that NRIs (non-resident Indians) have had in the country’s flag carrier, and is going to have a deep and long-lasting impact on the performance of the airline," he said.

Meanwhile, the action by Kingfisher Airlines and Air India pilots has helped other carriers increase their seat occupancy. According to travel agents, seats are not available because of high demand and fares have shot up as Air India started cancelling even domestic flights.

To arrest the rise in fares, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on Friday warned airlines against raising fares in the context of the strike. DGCA officials said there have been no major changes in the operational cost of airlines in the past two months and there is no reason for a dramatic increase in fares.

Meanwhile, Air India has filed a petition with DGCA for cancelling the licences of 11 office-bearers of IPG considering the damage caused to the airline.

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