Representatives of striking Air India staff and top officials of the financially-drained carrier are to hold talks here on Wednesday in a bid to end the standoff that has left thousands of passengers across the country stranded with as many as 80 flights cancelled since morning.

“We were invited by the management for talks. We are going to attend it. We will also be meeting the chief labour commissioner and place our demands,” said J.B. Kadian, general secretary of Air Corporation Employees Union (ACEU).

The meetings are scheduled from 3 p.m. onward.

Around 15,000 crew members and maintenance engineers of the airline are on a nationwide strike since Tuesday, protesting a gag order issued on the members for talking to the media after Saturday’s air crash and delay in payment of salaries.

“It is our right to speak with the media. Management cannot gag us,” Mr. Kadian said.

An airport official said 24 flights from Delhi, 37 from Mumbai and seven from Kolkata were cancelled, leaving the passengers in a dilemma.

The government also sought allowed its employees to travel by any carrier till such time Air India is able to resume normal operations, seeking to send out a clear message of zero tolerance to the striking staff.

But passengers were unimpressed at the steps taken.

“I had a flight to Hong Kong at 11 p.m. on Tuesday and I reached the airport at 8 p.m., unaware of the strike. The ground staff at the airport was in no mood to support us,” Shradha Gupta, who was travelling with her husband and daughter, said.

“There was no information available and we were not told about the cancellation,” Gupta told IANS in New Delhi, where an estimated 3,000 passengers have been left in the lurch, with passengers making a frantic effort to get alternative connections.

Sunanda Kumar, who was to travel to Patna from here, had a similar tale.

“I was aware of the strike but hoping my flight would take off since not all operations were cancelled. But when I reached the airport I was told the flight is cancelled. I’m trying to book on another airline, but private carriers have hiked the fare.”

What has particularly left the passengers and the government angry is the timing of the protest, coming as it did after a major air tragedy in Mangalore involving the carrier that claimed 158 lives.

“This is just not done,” said a senior official in the aviation ministry, referring to the lack of compassion among the agitating staff. “We cannot stand blackmail. We have told Air India (management) to act tough this time.”

In fact, it was on May 16 that Air India flew a record number of 50,308 passengers on its network, leaving the management pleased that was the carrier was on the path of consolidation post the merger of erstwhile Indian Airlines with it.