The crisis in Air India worsened on Friday with the airline management sacking 25 more pilots and writing to DGCA to cancel the licenses of 11 dismissed office bearers of the Indian Pilots Guild (IPG) after over 200 striking pilots refused to return to work.
"Air India is escalating the matter rather than resolving the issue," Tauseef Mukaddam, IPG spokesman said, making it clear that their agitation will continue.
He said the pilots have sought time for a meeting with Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh to find an amicable solution.
In a statement tonight, Air India said it has terminated the services of 25 striking pilots "taking a serious view of the situation". With this, the total number of pilots who have been dismissed since the agitation started on Tuesday has gone up to 71.
AI has also written to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) asking it to cancel the licenses of 11 office bearers of the IPG whose services have been terminated.
On Friday, Air India also began working on a contingency plan to salvage its international operations as the agitation by pilots continued for the fourth day forcing the airline to cancel 12 more flights and reschedule over a dozen.
The carrier's low cost subsidiary Air India Express also cancelled five flights in the day during which civil aviation minister Ajit Singh met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and apprised him about the steps being taken to resolve the crisis.
"We are working on a plan. This involves operating a bare minimum number of flights on the international sector. This plan may come into effect from early next week," a senior Air India official said.
"We have plans to bring in executive and reserve pilots to operate the flights. We also have plans to wet lease aircraft to operate on the affected routes."
The airline has stopped bookings on some of its ultra long-haul routes till May 15, effectively cancelling more than 15 flights per day to major sectors such as the US, Europe, and some other destinations like Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Air India also had grounded the bulk of its Boeing 777 fleet. The airline has 17 B-777 aircraft.
"We have almost grounded the fleet of 777s. Some are stationed in Mumbai and the rest are in Delhi. Some are operating to destinations like Hong Kong and Shanghai, depending on the availability of pilots," a senior official in the operations arm of the airline said.
As the stir by over 200 Air India pilots entered the fourth day, the protestors on Friday approached the government for talks after the Supreme Court refused to initiate contempt proceedings against them and instead asked the airline to negotiate.
Faced with a tough-talking AI management, which was backed by the government, and public anger over cancellations and delays in the holiday season, the agitating pilots made the first move for talks to end the impasse.
The Indian Pilots Guild (IPG, which is spearheading the agitation, sought time to hold talks with civil aviation mMinister Ajit Singh, Guild spokesperson Tauseef Mukaddam said in Mumbai.
On its part, the government also offered to talk to the pilots but with a rider that they must return to work.
The minister briefed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the developments and later appealed to the pilots to resume duty. Though the minister ruled out invoking the provisions of Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) on them, he said their strike was illegal.
A Supreme Court bench headed by Justice TS Thakur hearing a petition filed by Air India said the striking pilots had done nothing which amounted to contempt and asked the airline to hold talks and sort out differences with them.
The stir led to the cancellation of 23 international and domestic flights of Air India and its subsidiary AI Express on Friday, putting hundreds of passengers to hardship.
AI's contingency plan
The national carrier decided to put in place a contingency plan from Monday to beef up long-haul operations and started the process of wet-leasing some aircraft.
Under this, the airline would operate seven flights to the US via Europe, out of a total of 16 using wide-body aircraft. Executive pilots would operate the flights, Commercial Director Deepak Brara said in Delhi.
The airline was also considering wet-leasing some wide-body planes, he said but did not give the exact number of aircraft to be hired, adding "we would require some aircraft to help us operate 4-5 flights".
Under wet-lease, the lessor provides flight crew with the leased aircraft. The planes are planned to be leased for a short period, airline officials said.
Under the plan, Air India would operate flights to New York JFK and Chicago with one stopover in either Paris or Frankfurt. Terminator flights to London would operate from Delhi, officials said, but added that all this were subject to getting time slots at these European airports.
Air India has a wide-body fleet of 20 Boeing 777s, three Boeing 747s and two Airbus A-330s. It has a total of 80 executive pilots.
The plan to operate seven out of a total of 16 wide-body flights would continue till normalcy was restored, they said, adding that a large chunk of the 20 B 777s were grounded in Mumbai and Delhi due to non-availability of pilots.
Ajit Singh said all unions have to rise above their "personal interests".
"If they want to talk, they should come to work, and all issues can be discussed, the high court has declared their strike as illegal," he said.
The IPG has been refusing to return to work unless the management takes back the pilots whose services have been terminated and the order derecognising IPG withdrawn.
The cash-strapped national carrier is losing revenue of Rs 10-12 crore a day due to the stir, apart from a daily incremental cost of Rs 3-5 crore, officials said.
The cancelled flights were from Mumbai and Delhi to New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Toronto, Frankfurt, London, Paris.
The national carrier has already stopped bookings till May 15 on its flights to US, Canada, Europe and Riyadh.
The apex court, while asking the Air India management to "sort out" the problems with the striking pilots, refused to entertain its plea for initiating contempt proceedings against IPG for allegedly obstructing implementation of its order on training of pilots for Dreamliner aircraft.
The bench said the pilots "have done nothing for obstruction of justice or to bring disrepute to the court.
Your problem is with them. You sit with them and sort out the differences. Don't resort to contempt proceedings."
However, it said if the strike is illegal, then the airline can take action against them.
(With inputs from PTI, IANS)