Frustration and anxiety are etched on the faces of staff at grounded Kingfisher Airlines as they gather at Mumbai's domestic airport each morning -- not to work, but to vent their anger.
On strike to demand wages that have not been paid for up to seven months, workers said how they were
struggling to provide for their families, with little cause for optimism that the debt-ridden company will honour its debts.
"I've been borrowing money from friends who now work in overseas airlines," said a 26-year-old engineer and the sole breadwinner of his family who said he was struggling with his mother's medical bills for a knee problem.
Banners waved by the protesters -- mainly pilots and engineers -- lampoon the management and owner of the airline, Vijay Mallya, known as "the King of Good Times".
At a gathering on Friday, many spoke grimly of the news about the wife of a Kingfisher technician who hanged herself from a ceiling fan in New Delhi. A suicide note blamed financial stress, police said.
Striking employees of Kingfisher Airlines holding a placard during a protest march at the domestic airport in Mumbai. AFP PHOTO
"How many more deaths does the airline want?" said an emotional engineer, who said he had sold off his family's gold ornaments and insurance policies and taken loans from friends to provide for for his loved ones.
"We have supported the airline for the past year, during its tough times. Look at the reward we have got," he said, declining like others to give his name fearing a company backlash.
Loyalty to the firm still remains, the engineer said, but the 4,000 or so employees -- none of whom have been paid since April and some for longer -- want their salaries.
Relations between the management and its staff reached boiling point last month after a series of meetings at which Kingfisher declined to commit to when it would settle its dues, leading employees to refuse to go back to work.
The carrier grounded its fleet last week and declared a partial lock-out, blaming "recalcitrant employees". The airline regulator has since warned that the licence for what was once India's second-biggest airline might be revoked.
With the suicide and protests, criticism is increasingly directed at Mallya and the contrast between his lifestyle and those of his employees who have stuck by the airline while others have joined the competition.
"If some of you think cancelling flights, speaking to media, or disgracing our company will produce cash and salaries, you are wrong," was a blunt written message he delivered to staff in May.
Frustration and anxiety are etched on the faces of staff at grounded Kingfisher Airlines as they gather at Mumbai's domestic airport. AFP PHOTO
Kingfisher CEO Sanjay Aggarwal has also come under fire, depicted by posters as "criminal executive officer" after reports of his $760,000 pay packet for the year to March 2012. Yet he too has reportedly not been paid since April.
"We have seen the good face of Mallya and now we're seeing the bad one," said one striker.
But while the tycoon's empire -- spanning beer, whiskey, a cricket team and fertilisers -- is not seen as in doubt, recent moves suggest he too is facing a financial crunch.
His flagship United Breweries (UB), India's biggest brewer, is in talks to sell a stake of the profitable liquor empire to Diageo, the world's largest distiller, which analysts say could raise $800 million.
The 56-year-old is also desperate for a foreign airline to pump fresh capital into Kingfisher after India relaxed its investment policies.
But analysts are doubtful anyone will come forward to rescue a company drowning in a debt pile estimated at $2.49 billion.
"Employees reflect the personality of an airline and when morale has been extinguished... it is akin to operating an airline without a soul," said a report on Kingfisher from the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, an aviation consultancy.
The airline, now India's smallest, has until October 20 to respond to the regulator and demonstrate that it is a "safe, efficient and reliable service" or risk being shut down.
For employees, too, time and patience is running out.
"It is shameful if I have to ask my parents for help again," said another technician.
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