Jet Airways, the oldest and, till recently, the premier private airline of India, is hanging by an extremely thin thread. The airline has been posting losses continuously for the past few quarters, yet operations were on as usual. On the surface at least, there was nothing wrong with Jet Airways and it arguably remained the airline of choice in India.
The losses, however, were piling up. That trouble was brewing became apparent to the employees in August. The management must have had some idea long before that, but apparently, it did nothing. If it did do anything, it was obviously inadequate, going by the current situation.
Whatever may be the case, the fact remains that the company did not pay salaries to its pilots, engineers and the senior management in August last year. Anyone above a certain grade was not paid regardless of what they made. The sad part was that the company did not even deem it fit to inform the affected employees there would be no salaries that month. It came as a rude shock to everyone.
Unfortunately, salaries have been delayed in Jet Airways before. So while the employees were upset about not being paid, there was no real panic. The management was contacted, our displeasure conveyed, and dates were obtained for the payment of the overdue salaries in September.
From that point, the situation only worsened. Neither did the company keep the dates for salaries, nor was the promised payment forthcoming. Each month, only a small portion of dues were paid and the amount owed kept increasing.
There was little or no communication from the company in all this time. So speculation and rumour flew and the general morale plunged. Resentment grew at this seemingly callous attitude and the feeling crept in of being taken for granted. By November-end, we were 2.25 salaries behind and it was getting to everyone. Those who had been working for a while were managing somehow, but the junior lot was getting desperate.
Learning to fly is expensive business. Then one has to pay the airline a hefty sum on joining, for further training. A bond has to be signed for an even larger amount. Many had taken loans to pay these expenses, presuming that their salary would cover the EMIs. As the salaries stopped, they started defaulting on EMIs. Some had bought homes for which they could no longer pay EMIs. To avoid default, they tried borrowing more, but the banks had now got wind of the situation and were refusing loans to Jet Airways. In some cases, expensive medical treatment not covered by the company insurance was being deferred.
In December, the pilots had finally had enough. They told the company in no uncertain terms that this situation could not continue. After much pressure, another payment plan was communicated in which it was promised that salaries would be paid January onwards such that all arrears would be cleared by March. Nothing of the sort happened.
At least all this while, Jet flights were continuing.
But slowly, ever so slowly, the airline was collapsing as one by one, our planes were grounded. Out of a proud fleet of 119 aircraft, only seven were operating.
Again and again, a solution has been presented only to be dumped at the last minute. Again and again our hopes have been dashed.
Who is to blame? Is it the promoter who mismanaged the situation and then delayed so long in exiting that he brought us to this point? Is it us, for allowing him to do so? Is it the lenders who, though they are not bound to do so, could have saved us by a timely infusion of funds as promised? Or is it just kismet, and Jet Airways' time had come?
Does it really matter anymore? Today we stand, unpaid for three and a half months, staring into a bleak future. For close to nine months now, the employees of this once proud company have stood by it through all the difficulties that it, and we, have faced. Today as well we are standing, our backs to the wall, with the wolves of bankruptcy at our throats.
All we ask is one more chance for our loyalty. Help us get to a position where we can work to get Jet Airways, India's oldest private airline, back to the prominence it once enjoyed. It is not only about helping a private company that was mismanaged. It is not about throwing good money after bad. It's about acknowledging that a company with such devoted employees has promise, and all it needs is that little push, that little nudge and it'll slowly but surely recover to its original glory.
Captain Karan Chopra is head of the Jet Airways pilots' union - National Aviator's Guild (NAG) and a Boeing 777 commander.
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