People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 41

October 11, 2009

Who is Responsible for Air India Pilots� Strike?


M K Pandhe


THE five day strike of 400 executive pilots of Air India, which commenced on September 26, could well have been avoided it only the Air India management had not arbitrarily and unilaterally reduced their productivity linked incentive (PLI) which was earlier decided by an agreement with the executive pilots. The 20 to 50 per cent cut imposed on their PLI payments had to be ultimately kept in abeyance by the Air India management, which was the cause of the strike action by the pilots.

The executive pilots, as usual, reported sick so as to protest against the unilateral decision of the Air India management. This affected all the Air India operations and hundreds of flights had to be cancelled due to non-availability of the executive pilots.

The Air India�s losses mounted from six to seven thousand crores --- not because of any fault of the employees but due to several wrong decisions taken by the management and the ministry of civil aviation. The financial bungling by the management could be seen from the fact the balance sheet of the National Aviation Company of India Ltd (NACIL) for the year 2008-09 could not be finalised till the end of September 2009.




Though the Indian Airlines (IA) and Air India (AI) were running in profit prior to the merger of two companies, the hasty exercise of merger without making proper preparations has created a chaotic situation for the merged company. Even the wage level of all their employees has not yet become uniform; working conditions also differ for their employees. The company has purchased several new aircraft without allotting proper routes for their operation, thereby keeping a part of the capacity idle. Many profitable routes were withdrawn and handed over to the private sector civil aviation companies at the behest of the ministry of civil aviation. While the Air India management has been talking about surplus manpower, it has outsourced several jobs to contractors, thereby adding to the cost burden of the company. Wasteful expenditure and corruption in this public sector undertaking has been eating into the vitals of the company.  Despite several suggestions given by the Air Corporation Employees Union and Aviation Industries Employees Guild, the Air India management refused to discuss the issues with these unions so as to make an attempt to overcome the difficulties in cooperation with 31,000 employees in the company.

The PLI scheme was evolved by the management in the past by withdrawing several concessions available to the workers, and did not put any big financial burden on the company.  However, in the name of cost cutting, the Air India management was planning to withdraw the PLI scheme or to cut down the payments under the scheme.

When the Air India management asked the employees to go on a five years leave without wages, it naturally evoked strong reaction among the employees. The management also announced unilaterally the withdrawal of concessions and benefits, which would hit the living conditions of the employees. The salary payments of the employees were arbitrarily delayed.

The callous attitude of the ministry of civil aviation is evident from the fact that the Air India has had four chairmen over two years --- Tulsidas, Raghu Menon, Bharat Bhushan and Arvind Jadhav. How a commercial undertaking can become viable with such chaotic policies of the overseeing ministry? Raghu Menon was arbitrarily removed during the election campaign, since he was reported to be opposed to having a tie-up with a Singapore company for the ground handling jobs. As a matter of fact, the ground handling was one of the major sources of income for Air India and Raghu Menon was supposed to be in favour of keeping the job with this public sector undertaking itself. This is an issue worth investigating as kickbacks are reportedly involved in the dubious deal.

After taking over as CMD of the Air India, Arvind Jadhav had been blaming the employees for mounting losses of the company and advocating a reduction in the manpower as well as changing the service conditions of the employees. There were reports that Jadhav was misbehaving even with the senior officers of Air India is front of other employees. His behaviour was only leading to a growth in the frustration gripping a large section of employees, who were extremely concerned about their future as well as future of Air India.




Instead of settling the dispute through negotiations, however, the Air India management planned to declare a lockout for two weeks. This was actually a game to help the private sector companies when the market was picking up due to the festive season. A spokesman of Air India reported to the press on September 28 that a lockout might inconvenience the passengers for a few days, but would eventually help in fostering discipline. In a media interview, the Air India CMD stated that the company was ready to face the strike! Thus the strike of the executive pilots was the outcome of the provocative approach the CMD of Air India was adopting, thus preparing the ground for closure of the Air India so as to increase the market share of private airlines.

The corporate lobby, which was casting its greedy eyes on the Air India with the desire to grab it, was over-happy to see the attitude of the ministry of civil aviation during the strike. An editorial of The Times of India on September 30, 2009 reflected the same corporate greed in no uncertain terms when it noted: 

�And that leads to the crux of the matter � do we need to maintain at great expense a public sector carrier to wave the national flag in the strikes? The government is needed to play in essential sectors that lack private participants. The aviation sector with its multiple private players and fierce competition, hardly fits that description. Given this, what is the logic of keeping Air India on life support? What is needed is not a turnaround plan, it is a disinvestment plan with a medium term horizon.�

Captain V K Bhalla, who was spearheading the executive pilots� strike, stated that they would be losing up to 70 per cent of their earnings. The Air India CMD was showing a high and mighty attitude which was only provoking other pilots to join the strike. The threat of a lockout did not deter the executive pilots while the other employees too were preparing to join the agitation, opposing the declaration of the lockout.

Throughout the period of the strike, the union labour ministry behaved like a silent spectator and failed to direct the Air India management to withdraw the unilateral cut in PLI payments. It was clearly observed during the pilots; strike in Jet Airways as well as in the Air India that the chief labour commissioner�s office was openly siding with the managements.




However, seeing the possibility of escalating the agitation involving all employees of Air India, the prime minister�s office (PMO) had to intervene and direct the Air India management to keep the cut in PLI payments in abeyance and restore normalcy in the Air India operations. The strike was thus withdrawn on September 30 due to the climb-down by the management, conceding the demand of the executive pilots.

The whole dispute resulted in the loss of Rs 150 crore to Air India, which was clamouring to reduce its losses!

It is reported that the management has showed its willingness to discuss with all the recognised unions in Air India the question of making this public sector undertaking viable. If the management is sincere about a dialogue, Air India will indeed be able to meet the challenges in cooperation with the employees. Can we hope that the Air India management will draw proper lessons from the executive pilots� strike, enter into a dialogue with trade unions, and take measures to plug the leakages and remove the drawbacks in the Air India�s functioning, thus strengthening this premier public sector undertaking in India?