When the Maharaja sleeps, the others take off. A 58-day strike by Air India’s pilots has cost the taxpayer Rs. 750 crore in government handouts, harassed thousands of passengers and left the reputation of the national career in tatters.
A 58-day strike by Air India’s pilots has cost the taxpayer Rs 750 crore in government handouts. HT Illustration/Jayanto
The gainers? Obviously the private airlines who have got more passengers — and a better long-term reputation.
Air India’s pilots, seeking what critics say are extraordinary luxuries for cushy jobs, hit when it hurts. Their habit is to strike in the peak travel season, helping rival carriers gain market share.
In the last one year they have struck work four times — three times in peak season.
In May last year, a time traditionally considered good for airlines due to the summer break in schools, pilots of the erstwhile Indian Airlines (IA) had struck work. In October- November, the Diwali-led festival season, AI pilots went on sick leave en-masse.
It was an encore this summer. AI’s international operations were crippled in May as pilots struck work without notice. They were “unhappy” with the airline management not agreeing to their demands — such as allowing them to travel first class when travelling on duty, flying the premium Dreamliners on long-haul international routes and time-bound promotions without consideration of performance.
The strike was declared “illegal” by the Delhi high court on May 9, within two days of its start. After 58 painfully long days, the strike ended this week, but not before the iconic Maharaja bled blue yet again. And the pilots survived sack threats.
“AI pilots are used to getting away and they have got away again,” said former aviation secretary Sanat Kaul. Private airlines, Kaul said, have always been the gainers but what is “very unfortunate is that no action was taken even when pilots continued with the strike after the court declared it illegal.”
“Unfortunately, strikes happen in the busy travel period and this raises very serious issues,” said Kapil Kaul, South Asia CEO of aviation consultancy firm Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation.
So, what did the pilots gain from their agitation? “They have been stubborn and foolish,” said Sanat Kaul. The government, he said, had got a golden chance to settle the problem forever but missed it: “If they had been sacked, they would not have got another job easily.”
“Employees have constantly arm-twisted the AI management,” said Captain Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation expert and a former IA pilot. “The management has definitely gained this time. The constant threat of strikes will no longer be there now. The fear of losing their job has been finally instilled. The striking pilots have got nothing in hand and there is no guarantee that those sacked will be taken back.” “They thought they could blackmail us again but look what happened. At the end, they desperately wanted a face saver to get back,” said a senior AI official.
The pilots, meanwhile, are busy patting themselves on the back.
“Our biggest achievement has been that the airline management, which until two days back was not ready to even talk to us, has been forced to talk now,” said Jitendra Awhad, a Nationalist Congress Party legislator in Maharashtra who heads the Indian Pilots’ Guild (IPG) — the association of AI pilots that led the agitation. The strike might not have achieved the desired goals for the pilots. What it has definitely done is to tarnish AI’s image internationally and to raise questions on whether the government should continue to pump in taxpayers’ hard-earned money to bail out a comatose patient. Red ink on the runway
“This strike has hurt AI turnaround plan (and also the) credibility of IPG because of their ill-advised timing as it happened in the peak travel period and strengthened competition. More important, it has very seriously hurt the travelling public,” said CAPA’s Kaul.
You might have paid more for your air ticket, and then some more as tax. But the pilots seem to be still smiling.