There was a grinding familiarity to the flash strike called by the Air India (AI) union on Tuesday. It hadn’t been 72 hours since the tragic accident in Mangalore when the Air India Aircraft Engineers’ Association (AIAEA) and the Air Corporation Employees Union (ACEU) pulled out some 20,000 AI employees from their work stations across the country. For the sake of the thousands affected by the subsequent cancellations of at least 76 domestic and international flights, those responsible for their harrowing plight — who also bullied many bona fide AI employees to join the strike — should be identified and the management should not flinch from taking strong action against them.
The official reason cited by the union leaders for the enforced paralysis of service, which was called off only after the Delhi High Court intervened, was the ‘gag order’ and showcause notice served to two union leaders for issuing ‘out of turn’ media statements. But it’s no secret that the union, comprising some 150 office-bearers, doesn’t need much of an excuse to whip out their 80s-style militant trade union credentials. The ACEU has, for long, been agitating against salary delays, shortfall in cabin crews and a joint venture that allows ground handling duties in some airports to be outsourced to ‘more competent professionals’. Such issues are just symptoms of a fatal disease affecting the airlines. The airline already sits on a gigantic hole of accumulated losses of Rs 7,200 crore. It’s in debt to the tune of Rs 15,000 crore. No logic allows such an enterprise to keep snorting up taxpayers’ money. In fact, the airline has two important and legitimate reasons to exist: as India’s ‘national carrier’, it still fulfills the obligation of providing connectivity to not-so-lucrative markets that the profit-oriented private sector doesn’t cater to at this stage. But for this purpose, AI hardly needs its bloated presence. A trimmer ‘hyper-localised’ airlines can be a viable alternative. The second reason for AI’s presence is in the other end of the spectrum: international flying. The combined forces of private airlines do not have the scale to absorb AI’s international traffic.
The airline industry is essentially a consumer service industry. In the last two days of unmitigated chaos, hapless passengers have been witness to the absence of ground assistance at airports, choked phone lines, and outdated information on the AI website. Passengers lucky enough to find personnel were told to take another airline if they were in a hurry. AI is a government property. So it is essential that the government takes strict action against those who have allowed things to come to such a pass. But above all, it has to stop treating the ‘Maharaja’ like pampered, over-stuffed royalty.