Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel Wednesday said the strike by Air India staff was illegal, even as thousands of travellers across the country were livid after as many as 140 flights of the state-run carrier were either cancelled or diverted.
The matter also came up before the Bombay High Court, which asked Air India to serve a notice on the agitating unions asking them to resume work, after the carrier challenged the legality of the strike, and sought restraining orders against its employees.
The vacation bench of Justice S.J. Kathawala and Justice R.G. Ketkar is expected to hear the matter again on Friday."The strike is illegal. Some sections of employees are behaving irresponsibly. This will impact Air India's financial health and reputation," Patel told reporters here. "The unions and the employees should come ahead for talks," added the NCP leader.
His remarks came minutes after the management's talks with the unions hit an air pocket. The minister went on to add that he had briefed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the matter this morning and that the government had decided to fully back the Air India management for taking strict action against the agitating employees.
"The Air India management has our full support. They have to run an organisation. The ministry will not like to interfere in the process or (in the) way forward for Air India. They have a management and a chain of command and they will take further action," he stated.He also added that the management could take pertinent action, according to the situation.
Around 15,000 crew members and maintenance engineers of the airline are on a nationwide strike since Tuesday, protesting a gag order issued on them for talking to the media after Saturday's air crash and delay in payment of salaries.
However, Patel rubbished the stand taken by some union leaders that the airline had asked them not to speak to the press, following some adverse reports based on the remarks of Air India staff after the accident in Mangalore that claimed 158 lives.
"You should understand: The order dates back to July 2009 and was only reiterated on May 24," Patel said, adding it was unfortunate that such acts were resorted to at a time when the government was helping Air India tide over its crisis.
The government also allowed its employees to travel by any carrier till such time Air India is able to resume normal operations, seeking to send out a clear message of zero tolerance to the striking staff.
However, harried passengers were unimpressed at the steps taken. "I had a flight to Hong Kong at 11 p.m. on Tuesday and I reached the airport at 8 p.m., unaware of the strike. The ground staff at the airport was in no mood to support us," said Shradha Gupta, who was travelling with her husband and daughter.
"There was no information available and we were not told about the cancellation," Gupta told IANS in New Delhi, where an estimated 3,000 passengers have been left in the lurch, with passengers making a frantic effort to get alternative connections.
Sunanda Kumar, who was to travel to Patna from New Delhi, had a similar tale. "I was aware of the strike but hoping my flight would take off since not all operations were cancelled. But when I reached the airport, I was told the flight is cancelled. I'm trying to book on another airline, but private carriers have hiked the fare," she said.
What has particularly left the passengers and the government angry is the timing of the protest, coming as it did after a major air tragedy in Mangalore involving the carrier that claimed 158 lives.
"This is just not done," said a senior official in the aviation ministry, referring to the lack of compassion among the agitating staff. "We cannot stand blackmail. We have told Air India to act tough this time."
In fact, it was on May 16 that Air India flew a record number of 50,308 passengers on its network, leaving the management pleased that the carrier was on the path of consolidation post the merger of erstwhile Indian Airlines with it.