New Delhi: Flag carrier Air India’s key pilot union has warned of industrial action as a deadline approaches next week for the start of a human resource integration process.

The civil aviation ministry set up a committee headed by retired justice D.M. Dharmadhikari in May to defuse a strike and asked it to submit a report by end-November on integrating the workforce of Indian Airlines and Air India, which were merged in 2007 under the brand of Air India.

Integration issues: A file photo of Air India aircraft at the Mumbai international airport. Photo by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

On 1 March, Air India will complete five years of operations as a merged company but without having integrated the 30,000 employees.

The Indian Commercial Pilots Association, or ICPA, gave up its 10-day strike in May on assurances that a report on wage parity and employee integration will be in place by end-November.

As the assurances are unlikely to be met before the deadline expires, “we reserve the right to invoke various provisions of the Industrial Dispute Act and resort to Industrial Action as deemed fit," ICPA president A.S. Bhinder said on Wednesday in a letter to civil aviation minister Vayalar Ravi and Air India chairman and managing director Rohit Nandan.

He sought their “urgent and constructive" intervention.

ICPA wrote to the aviation minister twice earlier—on 23 September and 7 October—seeking an appointment to discuss the issues of parity and irregularities but wasn’t able to seal a meeting.

The union, which commands a membership of 800 pilots, is slated to meet on 29-30 November before taking a final vote on the way forward, said another ICPA member who declined to be named.

ICPA will again seek an appointment with the minister before taking a decision.

The report “is 90% complete", Dharmadhikari said. “The third member of the committee has fallen ill. And we want to study the successful mergers of US airlines like Delta (on human resources), which is why it may take two or three more months."

The panel has sought an extension from the civil aviation ministry and is awaiting an official communication, he said.

The committee has invited the former chairmen and managing directors of Air India since 2007—V. Thulasidas, Raghu Menon, E.K. Bharat Bhushan and Arvind Jadhav—to give their views on how to merge the workforce.

Air India, which operates domestic flights to 66 destinations, has been under financial strain the past three years. It has sought government equity and loans to bail it out as it is dragged by a debt of $11 billion on its books.

This has resulted in the airline not paying employee allowances, which constitute as much as 80% of the salary component, for four months.

“If they can fall sick till early January, 800 pilots can also fall sick," the second ICPA official said. Non-payment of salaries has led to several qualified and experienced pilots joining rival airlines.

“About 50 pilots have left, four months’ PLIs (performance-linked incentives) have not been given. Nobody is interested" in resolving the issue, the second union member said. “There was pressure to not call off the strike in May, which is now coming back to haunt us from fellow members. Maybe we shouldn’t have called off the strike then."

The May strike resulted in a loss of nearly 200 crore for the ailing carrier and disrupted 80-90% of domestic operations for 10 days.

ICPA’s latest demarche comes at the start of the winter session of Parliament and in a week when the Reserve Bank of India is expected to give its views on a final bailout package to the state-run airline.

“Now if they want to go (on) strike, who will stop them? On what grounds?," said Mohan Ranganathan, an air safety expert and member of the government-appointed Civil Aviation Safety Advisory Council. “If you can’t keep your word, then you have no further say."