Even as the cash-starved Air India grapples with a 10-day strike that has cost it over Rs.150 crore and undermined its recovery plans, Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh has invited journalists to join him and an entourage of officials to travel to the United States to take delivery of the first of the airline's new long-range Boeing 787 jets.

In an e-mail sent to media organisations on Thursday, the Civil Aviation Ministry invited journalists to accompany Mr. Singh on his “visit to Seattle and Charlston, USA, from May 28-31 to get delivery of [Air India's first] B787 Dreamliner.” “[T]ravel, accommodation, etc., will be taken care of by us,” the e-mail states.

The invitation came hours after the release of official figures which showed that Air India's market share had declined sharply to 17.6 per cent, making it only India's fourth largest airline measured by passengers carried, ahead only of Go Air with 7.3 per cent and Kingfisher 5.4 per cent.

The figures showed that 5.4 per cent of Air India flights were cancelled in April — the highest among all Indian airlines — in a month when it did not face industrial action.

On Wednesday, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee signalled growing concern at the prospects of the economy — key to the airline's hopes of better times — by announcing he was “going to issue some sort of austerity measures.”

Ironically, the aircraft Mr. Singh is planning to receive has sparked the ongoing strike in Air India. Pilots who worked for the airline prior to its merger with Indian Airlines say they alone should be retrained to fly the jet, as allowing pilots from the erstwhile sister-carrier would jeopardise their career prospects.

In April, Mr. Singh announced approval for a turnaround plan for the airline, saying it was the national carrier's “last chance.” The government gave a Rs.30,000-crore bailout to Air India, in return for its committing itself to meeting specified performance parameters. The bailout was won after the airline registered annual losses of over Rs.7,000 crore, leading to a situation where it could no longer afford to pay staff salaries.

Like other corporate entities, Air India sometimes invites journalists for expenses-paid visits, meant to gather positive publicity for its services.

Earlier, several journalists were flown to the U.S. when Air India's low-cost subsidiary, Air India Express, purchased several Boeing 787-800 aircraft for use on its Gulf routes.

However, the scale and timing of Mr. Singh's trip, coming as it does at a time the airline is cash-strapped, have raised eyebrows even within his Ministry. “The Dreamliner is going to come to India from the U.S. anyway,” a senior official at the Ministry said, “so I cannot understand what need there is for anyone to go there to welcome it into the fleet, especially at a time Air India is surviving hand to mouth.”

The Ministry did not respond to queries from The Hindu why Mr. Singh needed to travel to New York and whether it was appropriate to spend public money on the jamboree.

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