When someone gives you as long a rope as civil aviation minister Ajit Singh did to the striking Air India pilots, logic suggests that you take it before it runs out. Such enlightened self-interest did not prevail and now the pilots find themselves out on their ear with the airline planning to bring in more pilots.
Railing as one pilot did that the minister’s actions are suggestive of a khap panchayat is not likely to make him quake in his shoes, rather it is likely to make him toughen his stand. Many may feel that Mr Singh has done the right thing by not giving in to the pilots’ demands for exclusive right to fly the new Dreamliners and added incentives. In fact, strikes have been taking place with such regularity that we are not really clear on what exactly would make the pilots happy and keep them in the cockpit for a reasonable length of time.
But, while the minister has shown courage to face down the striking pilots to the extent of telling them that they can apply as fresh candidates if they want to rejoin the force, the real issue has still not been addressed. And that is whether the aviation behemoth will ever be able to turn the corner and become competitive again. And here the simple answer would be never unless it is dissolved and refashioned.
It has run up losses of Rs 20,000 crore, has debts of Rs 43,000 crore and the daily loss from the pilots’ strike is Rs 10-15 crore. The question we should ask is why the airline has not been shut down much earlier. And so we come back to that old shibboleth — we are waiting for the airline to get back to health so that it may find a buyer if such a plan of action is approved. Mr Singh seems determined to get the airline off the runway. He would be doing a singular service to the nation if he were to look for bidders for lucrative routes, parking bays and aircraft.
The government has enough on its plate without being in the aviation sector. Now many may argue that other countries have national carriers. They do, but they are not run according to the whims and fancies of politically driven unions. They are run professionally and the managements are free to implement policies which are in the interest of the airline. The infusion of new pilots may get the airline going temporarily, but the long-term solution lies in the government moving out of the aviation sector, at least in India.
The Maharaja is still a brand to reckon with. It will not be if more people are pushed to opt for anything other than Air India as the days go by. And then the prospect of any buyer becomes as remote as the prospect of the airline regaining its lost glory.