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India – 400 Air India pilots threaten mass sick leave

Saurabh Sinha & Neha Lalchandani

NEW DELHI: Barely two weeks after a strike by Jet pilots plunged flight schedules into chaos, several vacation plans for the festive season could be
hit following a threat by nearly one-third of Air India pilots to go on indefinite strike by reporting sick en masse.

On Wednesday, cash-strapped AI had slashed salaries of non-unionised executive pilots belonging to the management cadre. The aggrieved pilots – 400 in all – have now hit back and are also trying to garner the support of the balance 800 unionised pilots to ground all AI flights. But since the salary cut was not across the board, the pilots were divided till late Friday on the strike call.

Together, the Air India-Indian Airlines combine operates close to 500 flights daily, with IA alone transporting nearly 23,000 passengers. The carrier has just about 16% marketshare within India, so a strike won’t have as big an impact as that of Jet. But those who are already scheduled to fly over the next few days could face some bother.

“Our chairman Arvind Jadhav has issued a Talibani diktat of cutting our salaries by up to a whopping 70% without any negotiations with us. The 400 executive pilots will go on strike and the 700-800 unionised pilots are also expressing support with us. Our pilots are in no mental state to fly and this has a direct bearing on passenger safety,” senior executive pilot V K Bhalla said. The executive pilots, who are almost all from the erstwhile Indian Airlines that’s now been merged with AI, point out that implementation of the cuts will see their monthly salary drop from about Rs 4 lakh to close to Rs 1.25-1.50 lakh while unionised co-pilots will still be getting close to Rs 2 lakh.

“We know we can’t strike as we are part of the management. But how can we work in this condition? Let them sack us,” said a senior pilot. The president of the pilots union (Indian Commercial Pilots Association), Shailendra Singh told reporters, “Talks are on both within the pilot community and with the management. We are morally with the executive pilots as their salary cut is very steep.”

Air India spokesperson Jitendra Bhargava said, “CMD Arvind Jadhav has invited executive pilots for a meeting on Wednesday. The management will ensure that flight schedule is maintained and passengers are not inconvenienced. It needs to be appreciated that the airline industry is going through difficult times. The scope for increase in revenue is rather limited due to overcapacity that has led to low fares and low yields. The focus has to be on cost control and staff cost is just one of those factors.”

The deep-in-red AI-IA combine has accumulated losses of close to Rs 7,200 crore apart from working capital loans of Rs 16,000 crore. The airline has sought a financial bailout from the government, which in turn has asked it to substantially cut costs before getting any money. Apart from several other measures like cutting loss-making flights and closing overseas offices, Jadhav-led AI on Wednesday drastically reduced something called performance-linked incentive of senior employees that accounts for 40-70% of their total pay.

For instance, the monthly basic pay of a commander and a captain is Rs 35,092 and Rs 30,438 while their PLIs are Rs 448,175 and Rs 303,995, respectively. PLI accounts for nearly Rs 1,400 crore of AI’s annual wage bill of Rs 3,100 crore for its 31,000 employees. So the management decided to cut PLIs of senior officials and because of the huge part this incentive is of the salary, the effective cut is 40 to 70%, claim pilots.

The aviation ministry is fuming. “Today it is a question of survival for AI. If we cut costs and raise revenue, we survive. If AI-IA pilots who anyway earn much more than their private counterparts go on strike without giving us any notice and cause inconvenience to the public, it will become very difficult for the government to give any money to the airline. Then it’s curtains. So either everyone takes a graded pay cut as part of overall cost cutting or sits at home,” fumed a top ministry official. Unlike the Jet crisis when the ministry did not act, calling it an internal issue of a company, the government is unlikely to take an AI pilot strike lying down. Being the national carrier, ESMA could be imposed, said sources.

The worst affected are former IA pilots. In 1991, they had gone on a 35-40-day-long strike and then the government leased planes from Russian republicsd. One of these planes crashed in Delhi and then the pilots were called back to work on their terms. Later, to break this strong pilots union, the government promoted captains to deputy managers so that they became part of management and could not remain in the union. Wednesday’s PLI cut affects these 400-odd executive pilots the most.

“If the pilots go on strike, it will be very difficult for us to make a case for getting any funds to ensure AI does not die,” is all a top government official said.


September 26, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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