Air India Express Fires 30 Over Mass Sick Leave, Gives Ultimatum To Others

The number of job terminations is likely to increase and the management is likely to hold a townhall meeting with cabin crew members today.

New Delhi:

Air India Express has sacked at least 30 cabin crew, a day after nearly 300 employees of the airline called in sick and switched off their phones, leading to large-scale flight disruptions. The management, sources said, gave an ultimatum to the employees to join work today or face action. 

A total of 85 flights have been cancelled today as the disruptions snowball into a full-blown crisis for the low-cost airline, which is a subsidiary of Air India, now owned by the Tata group.

An ongoing meeting between an employees' union, the labour commissioner and the management has extended beyond two hours now. The union, it is learnt, has said that the crew won't return to work till their sacked colleagues are reinstated. The Civil Aviation ministry is closely monitoring the proceedings, sources have said.

The employees have been protesting against the new employment terms, sources have said. The crew, the sources said, has alleged a lack of equality in the treatment of staff. They have claimed that some staff members have been offered lower job roles despite clearing interviews for senior positions, the sources said. The crew has also flagged some modifications in their compensation package. These developments are taking place even as the airline is in the middle of a merger with AIX Connect (formerly AirAsia India).

The Air India Express crisis is fresh trouble for the Tata group, barely a month after its full-service carrier Vistara witnessed disruptions due to protests by pilots over a host of issues, including their rostering for flights and changes in their pay packages.

In a statement, Air India Express has said it is making "every possible effort to minimise the inconvenience caused to our guests by this unexpected situation". "We will be operating 283 flights today. We have mobilised all resources and Air India will support us by operating on 20 of our routes. However, 85 of our flights stand cancelled and we urge our guests booked to fly with us to check if their flight is affected by the disruption before heading to the airport. If their flight is cancelled, or delayed beyond 3 hours, they may opt for a full refund or reschedule to a later date without any fees on Tia on WhatsApp (+91 6360012345) or on," the statement said.

"While we will continue to engage with our cabin crew colleagues with a commitment to address any concern, we are taking appropriate steps against certain individuals as their actions have caused grave inconvenience to thousands of our guests," it added.

The termination letter issued to the 30-odd crew members says that the mass leave "clearly points to a pre-meditated and concerted abstention from work without any justifiable reason".

"As a result of the above, a large number of flights had to be cancelled thereby disrupting the entire schedule, which caused tremendous inconvenience to the Company's esteemed passengers. Your act is not only subversive of public interest, but has also caused embarrassment, severe reputational damage, and serious monetary loss to the Company.

Your act of reporting sick for work amounts to a concerted action with a common understanding, to not operate the flight and to disrupt services of the Company. This is not only in violation of the applicable laws, but also violates the Air India Express Limited Employees' Service Rules as are applicable to you," the letter adds.

The Air India Express Employees Union (AIXEU), an organisation claiming to represent the crew members, has written to the management and "highlighted a stark departure from commitments". The union has accused the airline of mismanagement and treating staff unequally. Sources from Air India Express, however, had earlier said it does not recognise any employees' union.

The regional labour commissioner has said the staff's grievances are genuine. In a May 3 e-mail to Air India Chairman Natarajan Chandrasekaran and others - a copy of which is with NDTV - the Regional Labour Commissioner in New Delhi, Ashok Perumalla, pointed to "blatant violations of labour laws".

Stating that the concerns of the Union are genuine, Mr Perumulla wrote, "The management of Air India Express has not sent any responsible decision-makers to any of the conciliation proceedings. Mismanagement and blatant violations of labour laws were apparent."

Mincing no words, the official continued, "The HR department tried to mislead the conciliation officer with the wrong information and an idiotic interpretation of legal provisions."

For maintaining "harmonious industrial relations", Mr Perumulla has suggested that Air India Express set up a high-level committee to examine grievances of the employees and functioning of the HR department. He has also called for corrective measures.