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Managing ground realities

The decision of about 13,000 ground staff of Indian (Airlines) to go on strike could not have come at a more inopportune time.

india Updated: Jun 14, 2007 00:39 IST

The decision of about 13,000 ground staff of Indian (Airlines) to go on strike could not have come at a more inopportune time. Only the other day, it was seen as a born-again company, following the announcement of its merger with Air-India and talk of a grand vision. For a public sector giant stuck for decades with an ailing fleet, aging crews, lack of pilots and demanding customers, this year’s developments seemed like harbingers of hope and revival. But the strike reminds us that there are miles to go for the airline before it can call itself a serious player.

Tuesday night’s flash strike is intriguing because talks seem to have broken down, and the strike seems to have erupted all at once. Even global airlines like British Airways and Delta have their occasional union blues, but surely, there must be a method to the whole thing. If the strike was a surprise, then the government (as the owner of the airline) has the right to take tough measures. But it must be clear to the authorities that the aviation business is no longer about adjudicating over issues, but of looking at the whole thing from a commercial viewpoint. If it is legitimate to question workers on grounds of indiscipline, it is equally valid to ask why the management allowed the problem to linger. Herein lies the rub.

Managing public sector companies is no longer about “fair” and “unfair” decisions, but knowing how to balance that with “profitable” and “unprofitable” decisions. This requires some smart, unbureaucratic thinking. Workers must be told clearly that they cannot enjoy the perks of the competitive age without the productivity. At the same time, they must be offered incentives and communications to change the way they should. One suspects from the words of those in the know that there is a lack of clarity on the commercial agenda. Indeed, one might ask, what is the Civil Aviation Minister’s role in deciding on airline workers’ wages? If he is not deciding the wages of the employees of Jet Airways or Kingfisher, why should he interfere in the case of Indian? The government should think in terms of taking a one-time charge (to be offset against future earnings) to clear the air, and then sit back and let the airline management do its job. Handing over the reins — or the cockpit, if you will — is an art the government must now perfect.