Just as it looked that the ailing national carrier Air India will take-off on the wings of a Rs.30,000 crore bailout package, the agitation by well over 200 pilots belonging to the Indian Pilots Guild has once again grounded the airline. At the height of the tourist season and summer vacation for domestic traffic, these pilots started reporting “sick,” forcing the airline to cancel some of its flights, including about 20 international flights. And what was the reason? They are worried about their career prospects and promotions because pilots from the erstwhile Indian Airlines are being trained to fly the new 787 ‘Dreamliner' aircraft that are about to join the fleet. Recently, when the pilots protested against non-payment of salaries and flying allowances, there was much sympathy for their cause because a highly mismanaged Air India had racked up four months worth of arrears. It was only after a schedule of payment was worked out did the pilots call off their strike and resume flying. This time round, not only has the airline management decided to act tough with them, the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the travelling public are aghast at the highly irresponsible behaviour of a section of the pilots.
Air India has sacked about 20 pilots, derecognised the Guild, dubbed the strike illegal, and sent out medical teams to the houses of pilots who are reporting sick. Union Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh has gone a step further to say that, ideally, the government should not be in the airline business and that too in the service industry. But even to disinvest, Air India has to be turned round and made profitable. The question uppermost in the public mind is: why should public and taxpayer money be washed down the drain by bailing out such a mismanaged airline? When there was such a chorus of disapproval against a bailout package to the private Kingfisher airline, what can justify the repeated pumping in of public funds in an airline which is just not able to take-off? The Air India-Indian Airlines merger seems to be the worst management decision in the chequered history of the company. The Justice Dharmadikari committee report is due anytime now, and the least that the Aviation Ministry can do is to set up a panel comprising representatives from the management and the two erstwhile airlines to implement the recommendations. This is perhaps the last opportunity to revive the airline. The pilots have to call off the strike, resume negotiations and find an amicable solution. This is the time not for strikes or agitations but for a focused plan to restructure and resuscitate the airline.