Air India stopped all its domestic flight bookings for the next five days in the wake of cancellations (and combining) of over 100 flights on Thursday and a harrowing time faced by passengers across the country in view of the domestic pilots’ strike. The strike escalated on Thursday with 200 executive pilots of the Air India management joining it.
Around 800 ICPA union pilots were already on strike earlier. Terming it a “serious development”, a worried civil aviation minister Vayalar Ravi met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Thursday morning and also briefed the Cabinet on the situation later in the day. Air India said it sacked one more pilot and suspended two others, taking the total number of sacked pilots to seven and suspended pilots to four.
The Delhi high court on Thursday issued contempt notices against three office-bearers of the Indian Commercial Pilots Association, which is spearheading the strike.
The government said it was backing the Air India management completely. In fact, Mr Ravi lashed out at the striking pilots, saying they had only a “plus two” (Class 12) educational qualification and were earning a minimum of `3.8 lakhs a month, noting that some poor people in India earned as little as `50 a day. He said that agreeing to the pilots’ demands would mean an additional burden of `2 lakhs per month per pilot. “They cannot dictate (terms) to us,” he said.
The government is preparing for a long haul, with Mr Ravi declaring that “there would be no dialogue with the pilots as long as the strike continues”. The minister had on Wednesday ruled out a lockout at the airline, but civil aviation ministry sources said the airline could be headed for a shutdown of its domestic flights if the pilots don’t end the strike soon. In the past two days, 69 executive pilots “reported sick” and joined the strike in support of the union’s “line” pilots. The pilots also declared there was no question of ending the strike till their demand for wage parity (between those flying domestic and international routes) was met.
They are reportedly ready to even court arrest.
The civil aviation minister is understood to have told the Cabinet that the root cause of the unrest in Air India was the merger of the erstwhile Indian Airlines with Air India. When asked later by reporters if a de-merger was in the offing, Mr Ravi said this was “not the right time” to talk about it.
Issuing contempt notices against three ICPA office-bearers for not complying with Wednesday’s order, the Delhi high court on Thursday warned the pilots that if they did not return to work immediately, the union’s property would be attached. Justice Gita Mittal issued contempt notices to Capt. A.S. Bhinder, ICPA president, Capt. Rishab Kapur, its general secretary, and Capt. Amitesh Ahuja, its regional secretary, asking them to be personally present in court on Monday, May 2. On the pilots’ refusal to call off their strike, the court said: “There is no exception. If you do not comply, I have no choice but to pass an order, including attachment of (ICPA) property.”
Sensing that the strike was getting bigger, Air India on Thursday switched over to its contingency plans — under which it is operating a reduced number of flights. The airline said it usually operates 320 flights daily, of which 45 flights were not operated on the first day and 26 others were cancelled Thursday, and several more flights combined as well.
Not surprisingly, some private airlines have already raised their fares, and this was confirmed by top civil aviation ministry sources. The DGCA is likely to examine the matter. Air India is incurring a loss of around `4 crores a day due to the strike.
The Delhi high court pointed out on Thursday that the pilots only wanted their demand for 75 fixed flying hours’ allowance be considered by the C.S. Dharmadhikari Committee. The court also directed the ICPA to file a complete list of its members by Saturday, and the Air India management was directed to de-seal all offices of the defendants on Friday between 10 am and 3 pm so that they can have access to their records.
The court also directed the airline to submit complete terms of reference with respect to the pilots’ demands pending before the Industrial Disputes Tribunal. The high court’s April 27 order is to remain in effect, which restrains the ICPA from continuing with the strike. Asian Age