Ground realities

Published : Jun 29, 2012 00:00 IST

The strike by Air India pilots bring to the fore the deep divisions in the merged national airline company.

in New Delhi

An unprecedented agitation by 150 pilots of the erstwhile Air India has brought the international operations of the national carrier to a halt and led to losses of about Rs.330 crore. The agitation, entering its 25th day while writing this report, has resulted in an impasse, with Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh making it clear that talks can be held only after the pilots report back to work.

In the dominant narrative of the impasse, the pilots have emerged as the whipping boys of 24-hour news channels and newspapers. They have been accused of asking for too much and being irresponsible and intransigent at a time when the airline is under financial stress. Ajit Singh, in an interview to the news channel CNN-IBN, quipped: If you look around, the days of national carriers have gone.

However, this narrative elides the utter apathy of the management in the past five years towards the legitimate career concerns of both pilots and non-technical staff of the company. It is pertinent here to look at the ad hoc policy decisions of the management, which fuelled internecine quarrels and factionalism.

The Minister himself admitted in the same interview that the merger in 2007 of the two national airlines, Air India and Indian Airlines, didn't progress as it should have. The unwillingness of successive managements to make the merger work is borne out by the differential treatment meted out to the staff of the two airlines. The present crisis needs to be seen in the context of a larger malaise of professional mismanagement, irresponsible profligacy in key managerial decisions and a lackadaisical attitude towards workers' issues in the past five years.

One also needs to ask whether deliberate mismanagement by the government has created a situation where privatisation of the airlines can be pushed forward aggressively. Ajit Singh's infamous comment No one will miss Air India points in that direction.

Though the present agitation has not won the support of other trade unions of Air India, there is a common grouse about the lackadaisical attitude of the management, especially in the matter of workers' issues.

This correspondent spoke to trade union leaders and members of both erstwhile Air India and Indian Airlines, including the agitating Indian Pilots' Guild (IPG), the Indian Commercial Pilots' Association (ICPA) and the Air Corporation Employees' Union (ACEU), and also executives of the present Air India management. Despite significant differences on the issue of career progression, both sides were unanimous in criticising the mismanagement following the merger of the airlines. The ad hoc policy decisions of the management have created further animosity between the warring factions.

The ongoing agitation is being resented by a large section of the about 17,000 non-technical staff such as ground handlers, air hostesses and sweepers represented by the ACEU. Members of the union, while admitting that the agitation adversely impacted them, voiced concerns about nominal pensions, delayed salaries and the near lack of career growth. The management, they say, has not done much to improve their lot despite repeated appeals.

The Air India management, however, accused the two warring factions of pilots of being uncooperative and insensitive towards the needs of the airline. Speaking to Frontline, its Chairman and Managing Director Rohit Nandan said: If the pilots care for the airline and the country, they should report back to work. They should respect the High Court ruling which has declared the strike illegal. Three of the striking pilots have reported back to work. We have rolled out a proposal to take back the pilots on a case-by-case basis.

Interestingly, Air India and Indian Airlines were both making profits in the three years from 2003 to 2006. But the merged entity, the National Aviation Company of India Limited (NACIL), incurred a loss of Rs.2,226 crore in 2007-08.

The current controversy

At the heart of the current controversy is the issue of parity in career progression between the pilots of erstwhile Indian Airlines and Air India. A closer reading of the sequence of events that led to the current impasse brings out the inability of the management to effect synergy between the career paths of these pilots.

In 2005, Air India and Indian Airlines had placed an order for 50 Boeing aircraft (B777 and B787) and 43 Airbus aircraft (A319, A320, and A321) respectively. After the merger in 2007, 43 Airbus aircraft were inducted and only pilots of Indian Airlines, who are experienced in flying the aircraft, were allowed to fly them. The IPG, which is spearheading the current agitation, alleged that this move accelerated the career progression of the pilots of Indian Airlines and enabled them to be promoted from co-pilots to captains within four years.

Speaking to Frontline, Tauseef Muqaddam, a spokesperson for the IPG who has been with Air India for seven years, explained the reasons for the slower career progression of erstwhile Air India pilots. When the Airbus aeroplanes were brought in, Air India pilots were not given a chance to fly them. The Indian Airlines pilots were flying only Airbus aircraft before the merger since the airline had a single fleet of narrow body aircraft meant for the domestic market. This helped them to be promoted from the post of co-pilot to captain within a few years. On the other hand, the career progression in Air India took longer as there were multiple airplanes in our fleet, including Airbus 310s, Boeing 777s and Boeing 747s meant for Europe and the United States. Pilots with Air India started off their career as co-pilots of basic aircraft (such as Airbus 310) and went on to become co-pilots of a higher aircraft (Boeing) in about five years. It took another five years to become the captain of a basic aircraft and then the captain of a higher aircraft (Boeing). Thus, promotion to the post of a pilot generally took 11-12 years. The induction of new aircraft was expected to create more vacancies for captains. It had thus raised the hopes of the pilots for faster career progression. However, only pilots of Indian Airlines were allowed to fly the newly inducted Airbus aircraft.

The management set up the Justice Dharmadhikari Committee as late as May 2011 to look into the issues of integration and human resource. Since the merger, the management has maintained a policy of separation between the pilots of Air India and Indian Airlines.

The present crisis arose as a result of the management's decision to allow Indian Airlines pilots to be trained on Boeing 787s, an aircraft originally ordered by Air India. The IPG alleges that the initial plan, in October 2011, was to allow both Indian Airlines and Air India pilots to train on Boeing 787s on a 1:1 basis but there was an ad hoc reversal of this policy decision even before the Dharmadhikari Committee report was out.

Muqaddam said, We appealed to the management and the Civil Aviation Minister to address career progression concerns of erstwhile Air India pilots on May 2. The IPG and the management held negotiations for three days thereafter. The Executive Directors of Industrial Relations, Operations and Industrial Training were present at the negotiations. We reached a broad agreement on the core issue of parity in career progression on May 6. However, the management backtracked on May 7 and decided to send Indian Airlines pilots alone for training.

The pilots began their agitation on May 7. The management promptly derecognised the IPG on May 8. The Civil Aviation Minister met the agitating pilots for the first time only on May 25. None of the office-bearers of the IPG was invited for the meeting. Ajit Singh asked the pilots to return to work. However, he said that an inquiry would be instituted on a case-to-case basis for each of the striking pilots.

A source in the IPG said, This is a grey area. The setting up of an inquiry means that taking back or terminating the pilots will be up to the discretion of the management. Many of the pilots have been wrongfully terminated. Also, there was no talk about re-recognising the union. The management has terminated 101 pilots so far.

Indian Airlines' version

The ICPA, a trade union of erstwhile Indian Airlines pilots, has a different take on the issue of career progression. However, it too feels that the management has mostly dragged its feet on the issue of career progression and human resource mobilisation.

A senior ICPA executive said: It is the number of flying hours and not the number of years that you put in as a pilot that really matters when it comes to promotions. In order to become a commander/ captain you need 2,750 hours of flying and an Airlines Transport Pilot (ALTP) licence. The merger was meant to increase cross-utilisation of resources. But Air India Express [a low-cost subsidiary of Air India] has eaten into 33 per cent of the routes covered by Indian Airlines. Our pilots have the expertise to fly on long-haul international destinations. The decision of the management to send Indian Airlines pilots for training makes perfect sense.

In fact, the fourth report (2009-10) of the Committee of Public Undertakings on NACIL clearly pointed out, Your integration of Indian Airlines and Air India has not been user-friendly. It has been on paper but in practical terms there is no real integration.

The management has dragged its feet in addressing the legitimate career concerns of Indian Airlines pilots as well. Following a strike by erstwhile Indian Airlines pilots in April 2011 demanding at least 72 hours of flying and a monthly grant of $1,600, it was decided at a meeting between officials of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the pilots that the matters relating to parity and working conditions would be considered by the Dharmadhikari Committee on a priority basis and implemented by November 2011. The management provided for an interim arrangement with the pilots of Indian Airlines by the end of November, which remained subject to modifications recommended by the Justice Dharmadhikari report.

A few salient features of the Dharmadhikari Committee report have been made public by Ajit Singh, though the report is not available in the public domain. The committee has proposed uniform pay scales for all employees of erstwhile Air India and Indian Airlines. For the executive cadre, it has recommended pay scales as per the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) norms and for the non-executive cadre, as per industry standards. The committee has also recommended that the pay of all employees will be protected and allowances will be admissible as per the DPE guidelines but with some exceptions. As per the recommendation of the Dharmadhikari Committee, an implementation-cum-anomaly committee was constituted with representation from both Air India and Indian Airlines for the implementation of the various recommendations. The committee is to complete the task of pay fixation, level-mapping and seniority fixing within 45 days.

A senior executive of the ICPA explained, Following the merger, the ICPA had reduced the number of working hours from 80 to about 40-45. This was because of the transfer and rationalisation of some routes to the subsidiary company. Since pilots are paid on the basis of the number of flying hours and not on the basis of availability, the reduction in flying hours would mean a reduction in emoluments.

The Air India management had derecognised the ICPA after the pilots began their stir in April 2011. The union was re-recognised in May 2011.

Ad hoc decisions

While the agitations by pilots have resulted in losses for the company, many ad hoc policy decisions by the Air India management have cost the company dear. According to a report of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), Air India incurred cumulative losses to the tune of Rs.13,835.22 crore during the period 2005-10, of which Rs.4,324.28 crore was on account of the operation of leased aircraft. The CVC carried out a detailed study of the leasing process as per the directions of the 34th meeting of the NACIL Board in New Delhi in September 2010.

It studied 16 leasing agreements of NACIL-A (of Air India) and discovered several irregularities in the leasing of aircraft. The Finance Department had pointed out in July 2006 that the wet lease of aircraft would result in substantial losses. (In wet lease, the lessor provides aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance.) However, its recommendation was ignored by the management. Even the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) had raised the issue of wet leasing of aircraft. In response, the Air India management said that a commercial decision had been taken to operate on certain routes despite losses in order to maintain market share and visibility as the national carrier. It said the total lease rentals amounting to $7.6 million had been paid by Air India towards delayed delivery of aircraft for which there was no board approval.

The CVC report also highlighted the losses incurred as a result of the leasing of aircraft by NACIL-I (Indian Airlines). Of the 33 aircraft taken on lease since 2001, it was observed that 11 were returned after the expiry of the lease period and that there was substantial delay in the return of the aircraft to the lessor in five cases. A sum of Rs.325 crore was spent on 17 leased aircraft after their withdrawal from operations, in lieu of various expenses, the major portion being the cost of buyout. The report says that this is more than 33 per cent of the actual rental paid during the lease period.

Role of National carrier

The present crisis has brought to the fore the relevance of and the need for a national carrier. The dismal state of the Indian national carrier has led many to believe that national carriers cannot be run profitably and are a waste of public money. However, around the world there are instances of national carriers being run very successfully such as Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand. The parent airline company of Singapore Airlines made an operating profit of $181 million in 2011-12. Air New Zealand reported earnings worth $75 million for 2011.

The national carrier plays a significant role in serving national interests in crisis situations such as war, conflict and accidents. In instances where rapid accessibility is required to a remote region during a crisis situation, it has been a great help.

A senior captain with Air India said: Air India helped in troop movement during the India-China war of 1962. The airline holds the world record for the evacuation of passengers during the 1991 Gulf War. In recent times, it helped in the evacuation of passengers stuck in Libya during the uprising. It also helped in ferrying large weapons from France to India during the Kargil war.

The regular fleet of Air India is diverted in such crisis situations. Commercial airlines are very unlikely to disrupt their normal schedule for such purposes. The captain further said: About 17 per cent of Air India flights ply in remote regions such as the North-East. There was a sense of national pride attached to flying for the national carrier. This is an agitation that has been forced on us.

A senior commander with Indian Airlines said, Which private airline would sacrifice nine seats in an aircraft to bring back a wounded soldier from Srinagar on a stretcher? I remember evacuating the first batch of passengers from Kabul after the embassy bombings in 2009.

Last chance?

Despite the strike, 75 per cent of the Air India flights are running on a contingency plan. The management is considering hiring new pilots if necessary. The formation of a three-member core committee to look into the implementation of the Dharmadhikari Committee report has been announced. There is also a business plan in place for the utilisation of the Rs.30,000 crore bailout package pledged by Parliament to Air India. It remains to be seen if the proposed plan for turning around' the company will be fair to workers across the board and harmonise dissenting factions through fair human resource policies.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment