Cracking down on striking pilots demanding pay hike, Air India management on Wednesday sacked six leaders of the Indian Commercial Pilots' Association (ICPA) which was derecognised and its offices sealed.
The services of ICPA leaders, including its president Capt AS Bhinder and general secretary Capt Rishabh Kapur, were terminated by the management, senior airline officials said. Two other agitating pilots were suspended.
Declaring as illegal the strike by about 800 pilots, the management derecognised the ICPA and sealed its offices in Delhi and Mumbai.
At least 20 AI flights were cancelled since midnight including several on the Delhi-Mumbai sector and those to Kathmandu, Bangkok, Raipur, Aurangabad, Srinagar, Hyderabad, Nagpur and Leh.
Passengers had harrowing time with several flights getting delayed by over three hours.
While the management asked the striking pilots to give up their "irresponsible and unreasonable" stance and return to the negotiating table, the agitators said they were focussing on the "mismanagement" that had resulted in the financial losses to the airline and demanded a CBI probe.
To tide over the crisis, the national carrier has decided to rope in 150 management or executive pilots to operate the flights, the officials said.
No-frill carrier SpiceJet, in a statement, said it had directed its teams across all airports to accept and accommodate Air India passengers on request from the national carrier.
Terming the strike by its pilots as "unfortunate and ill-advised", Air India CMD Arvind Jadhav said, "now when such aggressive efforts are underway to resolve issues concerning every section of the employees, this abrupt action by the ICPA was certainly uncalled for.
"Why are some pilots being impatient, being irresponsible, being unreasonable, being adamant on tarnishing the image of the company and being totally unconcerned towards the convenience of our esteemed patrons and passengers", he said in an open letter to all employees.
Late on Tuesday night, the ICPA gave the letter to the management intimating their decision to go ahead with the strike, after the tripartite conciliation talks before the chief labour commissioner failed.
The ICPA, which has a strength of over 800 pilots of the erstwhile Indian Airlines, held the CMD "solely responsible for the financial mess" in the airline and "sabotaging" its future.
The ICPA general secretary, who was sacked on Wednesday, said that prior to the merger, Air India and Indian Airlines had a loss Rs 455 crore and Rs 280 crore respectively, which rose to Rs 16,000 crore within three years and that too after hiring consultancy firm Deloitte at a cost of Rs 90 crore.
Kapur said that "the management's intention seems very well scripted -- to buy new airplanes, upgrade the machinery (like SITA, SAT, IOCC) at a whopping Rs 800 crore and kill the morale of the employees so that they agitate, and then make way to sell the airline in distress."
The ICPA leader also wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging him to review the appointment of the "high headed and dishonest management" to restore the past glory of the airline.
"The Government of India has all the machinery and tools to investigate all the shortcomings of this management and hold them accountable. We, the ICPA, now demand a CBI inquiry or any appropriate body to inquire into the scams of the airlines," Kapur said in the letter.
The agitating pilots, all from the erstwhile Indian Airlines, have demanded pay parity with their counterparts in Air India, saying their fixed salary component was much lower than the latter's.
Air India now has a strength of over 1,200 pilots with ICPA having about 800 and the remaining 400 who mostly operate international flights owing allegiance to the Indian Pilots' Guild.
In his letter to staffers, the airline CMD said "the ICPA's midnight decision to go on strike is unfortunate and ill-advised. They had joined reconciliation process by attending the proceedings/hearings being conducted by the Central Labour Commissioner.
"They had given a commitment, including to the high court, that they would not precipitate the situation by causing disruption. They were also expected to present their case before the Expert Committee led by justice (retd) Dharmadhikari – which began functioning this week and have scheduled meetings/hearing even today".
Jadhav told the pilots "take up your issues with justice Dharmadhikari Committee. Make your voices heard. You have the management's support for resolution of your issues. But let's be positive and reasonable".
Countering Jadhav, Bhinder said "the management has instigated us to go on a strike so that they can derecognise our union by not taking any decision on our demands, despite agreeing to them in principle before the Chief Labour Commissioner".
He said the management had "adopted this tactic earlier too in the case of two major unions -- Air Corporation Employees Union and the All India Aircraft Engineers Association".
The management had violated the memorandum of settlement signed in November 2009 on implementing the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations, the ICPA president said.
The Association demanded a CBI probe into cancellation and withdrawal of profitable routes and bilateral rights "given away" to either private airlines or foreign carriers, investigation of aircraft acquisition orders of 111 new planes between erstwhile Indian Airlines and Air India.
The union also wanted an enquiry into the "under-utilisation" of aircraft and various facilities like engine overhaul shops at Delhi and Mumbai, training and simulators at Central Training Establishment in Hyderabad, "which are causing loss of revenue and extra cost to company".
The ICPA had given the strike notice on February 23 demanding better working conditions and fixed pay component.
The union, which had threatened to go on strike from March 9, had deferred their agitation till March 15 following tripartite talks with the carrier's management and the Chief Labour Commissioner.
Later, the Delhi high court restrained them from going on strike from March 16 since the conciliation process had started.
A three-member justice Dharmadhikari committee, formed to look into HR related issues of Air India, started functioning from April 25 and is expected to submit its recommendations in three months.