The wildcat strike by pilots of Jet Airways is the latest twist in a sorry tale that is Indian aviation today. The brinkmanship at India’s largest airline, however, need not have reached a point where half the fleet had to be grounded, inconveniencing 13,000 passengers. Jet Airways’ pilots are entitled to collective bargaining and a well-oiled union can, in fact, avoid such confrontations. But by going on leave en masse, the airline’s pilots are clearly in error for using the traveller as a bargaining chip.
Arbiters to the dispute will have done well to read them the riot act. On the other hand, Naresh Goyal, the owner of Jet Airways, could also use this opportunity to introspect on the string of public relations disasters his airline has been involved in over the past year. From sacking 1,900 employees and reinstating them a day later to threatening to stop operations if fuel taxes are not lowered, Jet Airways has shown itself, and to an extent the industry, up in poor light.
At the heart of the recurrent contretemps lies a business plan gone wrong. Indian airlines over the last five years were on a reckless shopping spree for aircraft that are flying empty in a downturn — the other airlines had seats to spare on Tuesday even after accommodating the spillover from Jet Airways. Along with the planes came the crew, some of them expatriates from Central Asia. One in five Jet aircraft is flown by a foreign pilot, whose salary can be up to a third less than that of an Indian. These hires would be easier to take off the rolls when the going gets tough, but Indian pilots see in them a temptation airline bosses may find difficult to resist. The jingoism inherent in this suspicion offers easy pickings for the likes of the Shiv Sena.
The episodic headlines from the Indian aviation industry point to the inevitability of consolidation. Jet Airways is the only survivor from a generation of airlines spawned when India re-opened its skies in the 1990s. Most of the airlines flying today did not exist five years ago; those that will five years hence are likely to be budget carriers. In an industry hurting most from the global meltdown, Jet Airways does not have the cushion of the UB Group’s balance sheet that its closest rival Kingfisher Airlines does. Things thus tend to reach a flashpoint faster in Mr Goyal’s airline. But his predicaments are not sui generis.