As the Air India pilots' strike continued for the fifth day today, a worried Civil Aviation Minister said he would invite former ministers for informal talks and discus the deadlock with them. Ajit Singh also urged the pilots to call off their strike and come forward for talks.
"Air India had started performing better. But their strike has created a credibility issue again. The pilots should take into consideration the difficulties being faced by thousands of passengers. They are not understanding that the government is trying to restore Air India. They should have some loyalty towards their employers," the minister said.
Referring to the Delhi High Court order declaring the strike illegal, he asked, "Why can't you call off your strike when the court has said so?" "I have said from the beginning, the pilots should talk. We are ready even today," he added.
But the pilots don't buy that. They allege that there has never been any serious initiative from the management's side. "We are ready to talk but management is not talking," said a pilot representing the Indian Pilots Guild (IPG), the union leading the strike.
He said the pilots regret the inconvenience being caused to travelers, but added that "a long history of unresolved injustice" made them resort to this method.
The pilots on strike are unhappy with the management for allegedly failing to give them the promotions that are due. They also say that it's unacceptable for Indian Airlines pilots to be trained to fly the new Boeing Dreamliner, which is meant to join the national carrier's fleet later this month.
In 2007, Air India was merged with Indian Airlines, the government-owned domestic carrier. Since then, pilots from the two airlines have clashed repeatedly over issues like parity in pay and seniority.
"The government didn't know how to execute the merger. Announcing a merger is different from executing it," the IPG representative alleged. "There is no structured approach to solve our problems," he added. He also clarified that the pilots have not given any pre-conditions for talks.
The Air India management has sacked a total of 76 pilots over the last five days for not reporting to work. It has also written to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) asking it to cancel the licenses of 11 office bearers of the IPG whose services have been terminated. But despite the strict action, around 250 pilots continue to remain defiant. And as a consequence, at least 22 Air India flights have been cancelled today already.
Meanwhile, in what is being seen as a shot in the arm for the pilots on strike, the executive pilots association of the erstwhile Air India has come out in their support. They have written to the Prime Minister asking him to intervene in the matter urgently and help restore normalcy soonest. Advocating the case of the pilots on strike, these senior pilots have also said that the management has violated the terms of merger of Air India and Indian Airlines.
In their letter to the PM, the executive pilots, who are also part of the management, have said that they regret the inconvenience caused to passengers. However, they said, they support the "cause" of the Indian Pilots Guild, the union which is leading the strike.
"Certain agreements which were undertaken at the time of the merger have not been honored. It is easier for an Indian Airlines pilot to become a commander in four-five years; an Air India pilot on the other hand needs eight to 10 years to become a commander," they have reportedly said in the letter.
The executive pilots have also complained that there is no clear cut policy on career progression. They have also sought an appointment from the PM to discuss the issue.
The Civil Aviation Minister met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yesterday and apprised him on the stand-off. At the brief meeting in Parliament, the PM asked the minister to ensure that air fares don't rise because of the strike.
"I updated the PM on latest developments. Whatever we are doing is according to the government policy. He has asked me to ensure that fares should not be increased because of these strikes. The Cabinet has approved huge amount in the turnover plan to save Air India, but Air India family (union) should understand and co-operate," the minister told reporters.
When informed about the Supreme Court's decision to refuse to entertain a contempt of court application filed against the pilots by the airline's management, the minister said, "I am not aware of what the Supreme Court has said. But we have always been willing to talk. However, we maintain that there is no need for the pilots to undertake an illegal strike."
"The main problem is how to make Air India stand on its feet and how to make it profitable. And in that effort, all employees and all their unions will have to co-operate. Otherwise it (Air India) will not stay afloat. They have to realise that if they do not rise above their personal interest, Air India will sink and with that all of them will sink," he added.