As the agitation by executive pilots of public sector Air India entered the fourth day on Tuesday, Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel appealed to them to resume duty immediately, put an end to the inconvenience of the travelling public and help restore normal operations of the national carrier.

In a veiled warning, the Minister said Air India management would be free to exercise any option if the agitating pilots did not report for duty by Wednesday.

Till late Tuesday evening the pilots did not appear to be in a mood to give in and about 20 more joined the stir in Mumbai, taking the total number of executive pilots reporting sick to about 190. Air India was forced to cancel about 80 flights, including some on international routes like the non-stop service to New York and onward connection to Chicago.

Mr. Patel maintained that the controversial decision on Productivity-Linked Incentive (PLI) that had acted as a trigger for the executive pilots to start their agitation had not been implemented as yet.

Showing the September 27 order of Air India management, he said that the earlier order of September 24 about the cut in PLI was being modified and the modification would be discussed with a committee of executive pilots before being finalized.

“In the light of this order which has kept the earlier order in abeyance, I see no reason for the executive pilots to report sick and not come to duty. There is no issue now and there is no reason to feel aggrieved. I appeal to them to resume their duties,” he said. The Minister said the airline had not faulted on payment of salaries and PLI till now even while being in the financial doldrums.

Mr. Patel’s appeal came within hours of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh taking stock of the situation arising out of the agitation. The Prime Minister was apprised of developments by Civil Aviation Secretary M. M. Nambiar and Air India Chairman and Managing Director Arvind Jadhav.

The Minister revealed that an executive pilot of Deputy General Manager rank drew total emoluments of Rs.6,30,764 a month which included Rs.5,75,308 as PLI and Rs.55,456 as pay and allowances.

Air India has suspended booking of tickets till further notice and decided to cancel a majority of its morning flights in a bid to avoid inconvenience to the passengers by last-minute cancellations.

The cash-strapped national carrier is estimated to be incurring losses of around Rs.12 crore daily due to cancellation of flights and fall in the number of bookings.

“The number of bookings have gone down from 32,000 to 14,000 per day and we are incurring losses of 30 per cent of our total revenue of Rs.40 crore everyday,” Mr. Jadhav said.

Describing the proposed cut in the PLIs of the employees as an “essential” step for the turnaround of the company, Mr. Jadhav said the plan was submitted to banks and financial institutions and they asked about what sacrifices were being made by the employees.

“Rationalisation of PLIs was a must and the committee formed to look into the matter has not allowed us to cut more than 50 per cent,” Air India chief said when asked about the allegations of the agitating pilots that there would be 70 per cent cut in their PLIs.

The CMD said the total PLI expenditure had gone up from Rs.1,000 crore to Rs.1,480 crore in the last two years, of which 50 per cent accounts for the cabin and cockpit crew and the rest for the other 26,000 employees.

He claimed that he had held discussions with all sections of employees and the management over the proposal to cut the PLI and had also written to and held talks with the representatives of executive pilots.

To a query that only non-unionised pilots were being targeted for pay cuts, he said: “It is not so. We are taking a lot of measures to cut down our costs but they are not visible. Cut in the PLI of pilots and employees would be visible. If Air India has to turn around, any plan for its revival will involve drastic measures. British Airways and Japan Airlines have gone to the extent of slashing thousands of jobs but we want to survive and for this we will have to reduce our cost structure.”

Mr. Jadhav said that as many as 152 flights had been cancelled in the last three days by Air India.

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