New Delhi/Mumbai: A two-day Air India strike came to an end on Wednesday after the Delhi high court said it was illegal and the national carrier dismissed 17 officials, including union leaders, and suspended 15 engineers, in the strongest action it has taken against labour unrest.

The airline said as many as 73 flights were affected, with revenue losses running into Rs12 crore. The international services disrupted included flights to Singapore, Kathmandu, Dubai, Muscat and Abu Dhabi, a Delhi airport official said.

High and dry: Technical and ground staff of Air India struck work for a second day on Wednesday, leaving several passengers stranded. R Senthil Kumar / PTI

“We don’t want to compromise on three issues—accountability, discipline and service to passengers," Air India chairman and managing director Arvind Jadhav said at a press briefing in Delhi, justifying the action taken by the management.

J.B. Kadian, general secretary of the Air Corporation Employees Union (Aceu), which claims the support of more than 12,000 of the 31,000 Air India employees, was among those sacked. He couldn’t be reached for comments.

“The way the passengers have been treated is completely unacceptable," said a senior civil aviation ministry official. More people may be sacked or dismissed with the number rising by as many as 40 more, he said.

The official said the carrier had wanted to take similar action in September, when pilots had reported sick on four days in a row to protest against salary cuts. That disruption had cost the airline some Rs80 crore in lost revenue.

The carrier and the government are prepared to face a partial lockout if labour trouble persists, this official said.

While schedules are expected to be restored on Thursday, any further action by workers will continue to throw flights out of gear.

“Now it’s going to get bad, this is going to precipitate (events)," said an Air India official who did not want to be named.

The airline management has said it will crack down on erring employees and has asked departments to prepare a list of those signing in, but performing their tasks. Employees found to be participating in any labour action will be counselled and then issued a warning, Jadhav said.

Flights will take two-four days to get back to normal, the chairman said.

Earlier on Wednesday, aviation minister Praful Patel signalled the government’s backing for Jadhav.

“Air India management is free to take all appropriate action and I am sure they are going to adequately respond," he said after briefing the Union Cabinet and the Prime Minister. “The management needs to act adequately and firmly."

Earlier, government officials had been cleared to take private airlines instead of Air India while the strike was on.

Air India’s lawyer Lalit Bhasin, partner at law firm Bhasin and Co., had moved the petition before the Delhi high court bench headed by Rajeev Shikdar. The petition sought immediate intervention from the high court on the grounds that the strike was illegal as conciliation proceedings were still going before the chief labour commissioner. As per the rule a mandatory 14-day notice has to be served before any strike.

On 14 May, the unions had issued a notice for a strike to commence from 31 May. The court restrained them from going on this strike too.

Jadhav has to salvage an airline that saw losses of Rs8,461.88 crore in the 2007-09, but also rein in Air India’s unions.

The strike came as the carrier is dealing with the fallout of Saturday’s crash of an Air India Express plane that killed 158 people in Mangalore.

Unions had called the strike after the carrier supposedly issued a gag order on workers barring them from speaking to the media about safety-related issues.

The government has already pumped Rs800 crore into Air India, and has pledged to infuse another Rs1,200 crore as long as the carrier adheres to cost-cutting targets.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party demanded that the Prime Minister explain why Air India’s performance had deteriorated.

“Who is responsible for this mess in Air India? This seems the right time for the government to come out with an answer. The PM should explain," BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy said at a press conference in Delhi.

Jadhav’s most high-profile recruit in his campaign to fix Air India will be joining the airline next week.

The newly appointed chief operating officer Gustav Baldauf will join on 1 June, Patel said on Wednesday.

The terms of his contract and salary package would be finalized by the month-end, Jadhav said.

Baldauf, whose appointment was approved by the Air India board last month, will report to Jadhav and both will be responsible for all steps to turn around the ailing national carrier.

“This is illegal. This decision was taken without consulting to us or even other directors. We will go for legal recourse against this dictatorship by Air India chairman and managing director Arvind Jadhav," said a Mumbai-based union leader who got termination letter from Air India chairman and managing director Arvind Jadhav.

“See the action of CMD is illegal. Our union is registered under the Indian government law. Therefore, we will proceed accordingly.

Definelty we will seek other unions help too. See this has happened to the single largest union representing 50% of Air India’s employees. So it may happened to any union tomorrow. We are in the trade union for last 60 years. We dont believe in "dadagiri". Not a single officer or engineer was manhandled. Still this illegal action was taken. But we will proceed according to the lawful terms to fight against this victimisation," Aceu president Dinakar Shetty told Mint.

Air India spokesperson declined to comment to this story while another senior Air India executive, on the condition of anonymity, said sealing the offices is a natural fallout of deregistering the unions.

At 1300 hours, 17 union leaders and a few engineers were handed out dismissal letters.

Air India provides office premises and telephone facilities to members of recognized employee unions to carry out their union activities.

A few union leaders who are employees of the airline were allowed to devote full time to union activities. There are 13 recognized employee unions operating in Air India.

This is not the first time that a Union has been de-recognized at Air India. In 2003, Indian Pilot’s Guild was de-recognized by Air India management for violating conditions agreed upon in the Union recognition agreement. The union managed to wrest back their recognition after five years in 2008, after prolonged legal battle.

All India Aircraft Engineers Association, led by its general secretary Y V Raju, is all set to serve a fresh 14-days notice of strike to Air India. “Our union is not deregistered, just de-recongnised. We have already consulted with our labour union lawyers," said a union leader.

Manish Ranjan, Santosh K. Joy and PTI contributed to this story.