Civil aviation minister Ajit Singh has hardened his stand on the striking Air India pilots, saying the reinstatement of those sacked by the airline would be difficult.
“It will be difficult to take them back. They have to convince me why they struck work in peak season and continue to be on strike despite the (Delhi) high court holding it illegal,” Singh told Hindustan Times in an exclusive interview.
The Air India management has sacked 71 pilots already. While the Indian Pilots Guild (IGP) has sought talks, Singh made it clear no dialogue was possible until the pilots withdrew the agitation and apologised to the passengers.
“If I give in, they will go on strike again in three months,’’ he said.
Singh is perturbed by the inconvenience faced by passengers who, according to him, are neither getting a refund nor have the money to book hotel rooms or a seat on other airlines."This time, the issue is Air India’s survival. I don’t know how we will repair the ill-will. If they (pilots) can go on strike without talking to me, what is the guarantee they will not do so again?" he asked.
The stand-off between the airline and the pilots entered its sixth day on Saturday. The IGP is led by Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) MLA Jitendra Awhad.
On whether he felt the NCP — of which former civil aviation minister Praful Patel is a prominent member — was fuelling the strike, Singh said: “The IGP president is an NCP legislator, but in industrial disputes, the trade unions mostly don’t listen to their political leaders.”
Air India’s debt stood at Rs 43,000 crore and its passenger share, according to the minister, was down to 16-17%. It has been given R30,000 crore, but the loan comes with strict performance riders.
“Air India owes money to the oil companies and the Airports Authority of India. Why this strike when the airline is on the verge of bankruptcy? Unless Air India becomes competitive, it will be difficult for it to survive. We need the cooperation of the employees,” Singh said.
“The pilots want to travel first class when they are on duty and not flying. There are only four seats in first class and even the ministry’s joint secretary in charge of Air India flies business,” he said.
Singh said he briefed the prime minister on Friday about the strike and told him “we have to bear with the hiccups.”
Asked if shutting down the national carrier was a solution, he was candid: “It’s very difficult for the government to run a service sector industry where the customer is king. It’s not part of the government’s culture. While there are instances of some PSUs doing well, the government should think twice before running a service sector industry.”