Striking Air India pilots on Friday said they are willing to go to jail and refused to call off their agiation which further paralysed the services of the state-owned airline leaving hundreds of passengers stranded.
With the strike entering the third day on Friday, the Delhi high court initiated contempt of court proceedings against the pilots for their "utter defiance" of its order on Wednesday to call off the agitation calling it as "brazen and smacking of sheer arrogance".
A lockout of the airline and invoking of Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) were also being mulled to crack down on the pilots.
The AI management ordered the pilots to report for duty failing which it said the airline "is at liberty to take any action as deemed fit including termination of services".
"This is without prejudice to any further action management may take under any other law of the land," a notice by the management to the agitators said. The deadline for pilots to resume duty expired at 5pm on Friday.
The management sacked two more pilots on Friday taking to nine the number of pilots terminated. Six pilots have been already suspended.
Tougher options of clamping ESMA and a lockout were also being mulled, official sources said, adding they were waiting for the high court's decision on the contempt petition.
In Mumbai, the representatives of the 850-plus agitating pilots said they will go ahead with the stir and are willing to go to jail.
"We are more than willing to go to jail. Nearly 31,000 Air India employees will also be ready to court arrest because we are serious about saving the national carrier from ruin," Rishabh Kapur, General Secretary of the derecognised Indian Commercial Pilot Associations (ICPA) spearheading the stir told reporters.
He demanded a CBI probe into the "massive corruption" in the airline under the leadership of CMD Arvind Jadhav.
"We are willing to get back to work provided the Government assures that they will look into the corruption issue raised by us and order a CBI enquiry."
Kapur also demanded to make public portion of the Niira Radia tape that allegedly speaks about the hidden agenda of the Air India management to sell the Government-run airline to a private party.
Turning the heat on striking Air India pilots, the Delhi high court while initiating the contempt of proceedings also refused to lift the ban imposed by Air India management on ICPA.
Justice Geeta Mittal, who had issued contempt notices to three ICPA office bearers yesterday on a plea by Air India management, began contempt proceedings suo motu today, taking cognisance of media reports of pilots' continuing the strike and causing difficulties to air passengers.
"It is evident that the conduct of pilots is brazen, wilful and smacks of sheer arrogance," Justice Mittal said while referring the matter to the Chief Justice of the high court for further steps related to contempt proceedings by a division bench.
"There is complete lack of respect for the court orders," she said, adding "this conduct of pilots is covered by the definition of the criminal contempt of court" and "such persons are liable to face appropriate proceedings under the law."
Maintaining that the pilots' continued strike is in "utter defiance of court order," Justice Mittal said "it is noteworthy that despite repeated orders, the pilots have defied them and their conduct is exasperating. They have undermined the authority, dignity and majesty of the court."
Earlier during the day, Justice S Murlidhar refused to give a sympathetic hearing to the striking pilots' plea to lift the ban on ICPA.
ICPA leaders said they would continue their strike till the management gave an assurance that they were willing to resolve the issues in a time-bound manner.
"We are more than willing to call off the strike if the government is ready to look into the issues we have raised," ICPA General Secretary Rishabh Kapur said in Mumbai.
The strike, which began on Tuesday midnight, has forced the cancellation of about 300 flights and led to an estimated operational loss of Rs 26.5 crore, an AI official said.
Air India operated only 50 of its 320 daily flights, though some large, wide-body planes like jumbo Boeing 747 and Boeing 777s were used to carry more passengers.
AI sources said the airline could consider taking pilots from other Indian carriers "on loan" to meet the crisis. "We are looking at getting at least 20 sets (a total of 40) pilots".
The pilots from other airlines would have to be trained to operate same type of Airbus A-320 aircraft as Air India has for domestic operations.
In this context, Air India could make a request to its competitors like Kingfisher and IndiGo which fly mostly similar planes, the sources said.
The contempt proceedings in the High Court were taken up suo motu by Justice Geeta Mittal that despite its order the pilots have not called off the strike and the passengers were hard pressed.