Barely a year after the recession-hit Indian airline industry sought one billion U.S. dollars from thecountry's government, some of the leading carriers are still in a state of disarray as their constant efforts to ride out the global meltdown are somewhat being affected by what is very unusual in India -- pilots' strike.
First pilots of Jet Airways went on strike, creating havoc on India's ever-increasing air traffic for over a week or so. Now, some 400 pilots of the country's cash-strapped national carrier, Air India, went on mass sick leave and even refused to talk to the management in protest against the 25 to 50 percent cuts in their productivity-linked incentive. The fallout: some 20 flights cancelled till Saturday, including six international ones originating from the national capital Sunday.
Aviation experts have claimed that the airline industry is not only facing huge losses due to high fuel costs, but also a big dent in its image because of a strike by pilots. And, when it comes to the country's national carrier, which operates close to 500 flights daily, transporting nearly 23,000 passengers, the dent is much bigger.
"Air India had slashed salaries of executive pilots belonging to the management cadre on Wednesday, only to cut down the huge losses. But, pilots are refusing to listen to the management. So, 400 of them reported sick for duty. This is unexpected in a country like India, where more and more people now prefer air travel because of the cheaper fares and to save time. But, the strike is only causing a dent. At least they aren't downsizing like many have been doing in the U.S. and Europe," said aviation expert H.K. Dave.
Agreed analyst Professor S.K. Gupta: "But, who wants to listen? The Air India pilots know that the Jet Airways management had to accept to the demands of the striking pilots and it reinstated two sacked pilots just days back. So, Air India pilots know the management will also have to accede to their demands by rolling back the incentive cuts. This is not common in India. You can say that it's a very recent trend. You can't expect pilots to strike by lower-grade employee unions. It's a shame."
In fact, senior executive pilot of Air India Captain V.K. Bhalla, representing the striking pilots, clearly said that "nothing doing", till the management decides to roll back the cuts in incentives as that would end up in 70 percent cut in their salaries.
"Our chairman Arvind Jadhav has issued a Talibani diktat of cutting our salaries by up to a whopping 70 percent without any negotiations with us. The 400 executive pilots will go on strike and the 700 to 800 unionized pilots are also expressing support with us. Our pilots are in no mental state to fly and this has a direct bearing on passenger safety," Captain Bhalla told the media, claiming that implementation of the cuts will see their monthly salary drop from about 400,000 rupees (8,000 U.S. dollars) to close to 125,000 to 150,000 rupees.
Said aviation analyst Professor Ravi Kumar: "Strike by pilots is no doubt unusual in India. You can't take hostage passengers because of their demands. They should find a different way to get it redressed by the management, not by striking. Imagine what impression will the foreign visitors, who choose the domestic airlines to fly, get. No where in the world, do pilots strike. TheIndian government must step in and act. It's time to act."
But, senior Air India pilots were defiant. "We know we can't strike as we are part of the management. But how can we work in this condition? Let them sack us. Talks are on both within the pilot community and with the management. We are morally with the executive pilots as their salary cut is very steep," the President of the Indian Commercial Pilots Association Shailendra Singh told the media.
In response, Air India spokesperson Jitendra Bhargava has said: "CMD Arvind Jadhav has invited executive pilots for a meeting on Wednesday. The management will ensure that flight schedule is maintained and passengers are not inconvenienced. It needs to be appreciated that the airline industry is going through difficult times. The scope for increase in revenue is rather limited due to overcapacity that has led to low fares and low yields. The focus has to be on cost control and staff cost is just one of those factors."
Aptly summed up political analyst Professor Ajay Singh: "This has to stop. Only exemplary punishment against the pilots will save the face of the country's ailing airline industry."