Air India has managed to remain in the news for the wrong reasons. After years of being in the red and repeatedly asking the Government of India to bale the airline out of its financial mess, it has been unable to sort out its labour issues and long-standing problems with its pilots. Normally, the passengers, who are at the receiving end of such strikes, have no sympathy for the pilots because they may be the highest paid class of employees in an airline. But the present case is somewhat different — at the very least, it has to be understood from a different perspective. Although the passengers are put to hardship, and hundreds of families are losing out on their summer holidays for no fault of theirs, the striking pilots, affiliated to the Indian Commercial Pilots' Association (ICPA), have some legitimate demands that need to be addressed. From 2007, the process of merging the two national carriers — Indian Airlines and Air India — has been going on endlessly at the management and the government levels. Even the muddling-through has not been completed and glaring inequalities between the staff of the two merged entities remain.
The pilots who were originally with Indian Airlines have been demanding parity in pay with their counterparts in Air India. A pilot's monthly pay package depends on the number of hours he flies. For a variety of reasons, the Indian Airlines segment that takes care of the domestic sector has not been able to operate as many flights as it used to. So the take-home salaries of those pilots have dipped. Since pay parity has also not been achieved and the pilots borne on Air India cadre fly on the foreign routes, the differences seem striking. Without addressing this basic issue, arising out of an ill-planned and perhaps even unwise merger, the airline management and the Union Civil Aviation Ministry are dealing with it as an industrial relations exercise — derecognising ICPA and sacking at least eight of the striking pilots. With over 50 flights cancelled each day, the passengers have been left in the lurch. Those who need to fly have been placed at the mercy of private airlines which have silently raised the fares, given the dynamic pricing policy in place. Political interference in the running of the national carrier has also affected Air India over the years, denying it a level-playing field with the private airlines. Good sense demands that the Air India management initiate talks with the pilots to first end the strike, and then resolve the long-standing issue urgently.