Passengers continued to suffer as 53 Air India flights were cancelled on Thursday with the strike by around 600 pilots, earlier serving the Indian Airlines, entering the second day in defiance of a stay ordered by the Delhi high court.
As per information available at airports across the country, 53 flights, mainly out of the national capital and Mumbai, were grounded on Thursday; some 50 flights were either cancelled or re-scheduled the day earlier.
Thursday also saw the cancellation of some international flights, including those from the capital to Kathmandu, Kabul and Dubai.
Chaotic scenes were witnessed, particularly at the terminals in Delhi and Mumbai, as passengers frantically sought alternatives.
"I can understand the management's dilemma. But why should I be informed just the last moment that my flight is cancelled. I could have made some alternative arrangements," Sandeep Goyal, a passenger bound for Mumbai, said in the capital.
"Now the private carriers are taking advantage of the situation. A ticket that should cost around Rs 6,600 at the last moment, is now being sold for Rs 8,800. I had booked days in advance. Even with full refund, my loss is much more," Goyal told IANS.
Members of the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA), once on the rolls of the erstwhile Indian Airlines, struck work midnight on Tuesday, demanding parity in pay with their counterparts in Air India and other issues related to work conditions.
They also demanded that the airline reinstate the six pilots who were sacked and two others who were suspended on Wednesday, and want the union to be recognised again and its offices de-sealed.
Appeals by civil aviation minister Vayalar Ravi and Air India chairman and managing director Arvind Jadhav, asking pilots to end the strike and come to the negotiating table, were in vain.
"We have decided to rope in 150 management pilots to keep the operations as smooth as possible," a spokesperson for Air India said, referring to the senior executive pilots who are now also tasked with administrative duties.
But the striking staff members said some of these pilots had reported sick on Thursday.
The civil aviation ministry has decided to fully back the Air India management and the minister said a section of the pilots, whatever be their grievances, cannot hold the carrier to ransom, especially when it is going through difficult times.
Ravi said the pilots should work with the expert committee constituted under a retired Supreme Court judge, Justice CS Dharamadhikari, to examine employee issues such as pay parity between the staff of the two airlines. This panel had started its work on Monday.
Chairman Jadhav even wrote a strong letter to the 35,000 employees of the carrier and said the striking pilots were behaving irresponsibly and were unconcerned about inconvenience caused to passengers, especially in these testing times.
"Why are some pilots being impatient, being irresponsible, being unreasonable and being adamant on tarnishing the image of the company and being totally unconcerned towards the convenience of our esteemed patrons and passengers?"
But the pilots said they had been left with no option but to resort to the strike.
"It is the management that has forced us. We are the third union to get derecognised," said the association's general secretary Capt Rishab Kapoor.
Wednesday also saw the Delhi high court slamming the Air India management for turning a blind eye to the demands of pilots for some two decades.
"For the past 21 years, you are unable to sort out the problems. That means something is lacking on your part. Because of this even the families and children of these pilots are suffering," justice Gita Mittal told the counsel for Air India.
"The pilots are hereby restrained from continuing with their strike or resorting to any demonstration, as the larger public interest is involved," the judge said.
The order was delivered after Air India's counsel took up the matter before the single-member bench.
Justice Mittal said the case will come up for hearing again May 16. But the pilots said they will continue with their agitation, and would consider moving the Supreme Court to seek redressal.