Close on the heels of Jet Airways pilots’ mass sick leave, a section of the executive pilots of national carrier, Air India, has reported sick since September 26. In addition to cancellation of flights, disruption in traffic, and huge inconvenience to passengers during the festival season, this agitation has raised serious questions about the future of Air India itself. Ever since the process of merger of Indian Airlines and Air India began, the national carrier has been moving from one crisis to another. At a time when the entire aviation industry is going through tumultuous times, strikes or agitations by the staff are the last thing any airline would like to face. Air India has accumulated a loss of over Rs.7,000 crore and has run up a huge working capital overdraft. It has been looking up to the government for a bailout package for months now. Though the government has promised support, it wants Air India to put in place a restructuring plan that cuts cost all round, before the funds are released. The Centre has already underwritten the loans that the national carrier has taken to acquire a new fleet of aircraft. Air India began to cut costs — streamlining its operations and effecting a 25 to 50 per cent cut in productivity-linked incentives and other allowances to its top management, which includes executive pilots, whose total package ranged from Rs.2 lakh to Rs.8 lakh a month. That provoked the pilots to go on sick leave.
Apart from the cutback in incentives and allowances, it is quite possible that the airline is not rostering the executive pilots as often as before, or it is even pruning the number of flights. All this could have contributed to the drastic reduction in the take-home packages of the executive pilots — the highest paid staff in the airline, and the pilots in Air India get more than their counterparts in private airlines. Some of the agitating pilots even claimed, after the cut, their take-home pay was a mere Rs.4,500 to Rs. 8,000 last month, compared to Rs.2 lakh to Rs.2.5 lakh earlier. There has also been considerable delay in the payment of salaries. First of all, steps have to be taken to ensure that the other airlines do not fleece passengers taking advantage of the cancellation of Air India flights. Further, if the national carrier implements its plan to cut costs further by reducing the allowance of its middle- and lower-level staff, there could be more trouble, more protests. The Civil Aviation Ministry, the Air India management, and the staff unions must sit together to hammer out a viable plan to revive and restructure the airline.