The crisis in Air India worsened today with its executive pilots coming out in support of striking pilots, asking the management to revoke sack orders and hold immediate negotiations to end the six-day impasse, as at least 20 international flights were cancelled.
The striking pilots while stating that they were ready for talks showed no signs of returning to work, leaving hundreds of passengers fretting with holiday schedules going haywire.
Empathising with the demands of the Indian Pilots Guild (IPG) spearheading the agitation, the Executive Pilots' Association (EPA) blamed the management for the "complete failure" of integration of the two airlines leading to the industrial relations between management and employees "to fall to an all time low".
Charging the management with violating all service conditions of pilots and the agreements with them "in the name of merger", the EPA sought reinstatement of all terminated pilots and restoring the recognition of the IPG. AI has terminated the services of 71 striking pilots.
In a letter to the AI management, the EPA, however, said they are not in "agreement with the methods adopted by the IPG".
"We strongly feel the company should reconsider the (Boeing) 787 Manpower Planning policy and maintain the pre- merger status quo until the contentious issues of pilot's seniority and HR integration are resolved," it said.
The EPA comprises the senior-most pilots, many of them holding managerial positions. AI is banking on them to put into operation their contingency plan.
The national carrier is expected to put in place the contingency plan from tomorrow to operate at least seven international services on a firm basis. These flights would be operated by executive pilots.
"Pilots have still not reported for work. We have had to cancel 20 flights from Delhi and Mumbai," an Air India official said.
The flights cancelled include those between Mumbai and Newark, London and Shanghai and the services between Delhi and Narita (Tokyo), Frankfurt, Paris, Toronto, Hong Kong and Seoul. The airline has stopped taking bookings of international flights till May 15.
Under its "sustainable contingency plan", Air India is also actively considering wet-leasing some planes to operate another four to five flights. Under wet lease, the lessor provides flight crew with the leased aircraft. The planes are planned to be leased for a short period.
The contingency schedule has been formalised and would be set in motion in a day or two, Air India sources said.
The airline has been rescheduling some global operations or combining them to minimise inconvenience to its passengers, who were also being endorsed to other airlines. In view of the disruptions, Air India has also waived off penalties on refund, cancellations, date change and rebooking for passengers booked to travel up to May 14.
The directorate general of civil aviation last night issued show-cause notices to 11 pilots, mostly office- bearers of the IPG, after the airline management sought cancellation of their flying
Civil aviation minister Ajit Singh has asked the pilots to consider the plight of passengers and said, "We are ready for talks but they must call off their strike".
"The first priority must be to make sure that the passengers feel they are being listened to. So let the pilots decide that. Ask for forgiveness from passengers. Start the flights ... we can talk on anything after that," he said.
However, he acknowledged that the merger of Air India and Indian Airlines had not progressed as desired and some things had gone "seriously wrong" in the process.
"Obviously the merger didn't go as planned, and there is something seriously gone wrong. My job is to find out what the current situation is, learn from past mistakes and work to see that Air India succeeds," he said.