Though well after the deadline, Air India’s executive pilots have called off their agitation and resumed work. What did the trick was Union Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel’s announcement that the contentious order cutting down the incentives for executive pilots had been kept in abeyance by the Air India management. So, when Capt. V.K. Bhalla came out with the pilots’ decision to withdraw the stir, he had reason for some cheer, and he thanked the Prime Minister for his intervention. A couple of days ago, a senior Air India management official told the media that a lock out was imminent. That was when the Prime Minister’s Office intervened, ruling out any such move and asking the Civil Aviation Ministry to end the strike. Now that the ‘sick leave’ protest is over, the committee set up by Air India to hold consultations with the executive pilots should get going. It is imperative that the airline put in place a turn-around plan that will persuade banks, financial institutions, and the Government of India, to provide the financial support so necessary for reviving its fortunes.
Cutting down costs and enhancing revenue seem to be the twin planks of any restructuring plan that Air India has to draw up. With a dynamic team in the Aviation Ministry to back it, the airline’s management must swiftly initiate the negotiation process. Whatever is firmed up without consultations invariably runs into problems at the implementation stage, as the proposed change in the allowance package for executive pilots has shown. The management must take all sections of employees into confidence and evolve an agreed plan of action to fly Air India out of the present turbulence within the next two or three years. The Ministry must also utilise this opportunity to lay down a basic framework for all the airlines. First of all, a full fledged regulator must be created to deal with the ground rules and disputes. The Directorate-General of Civil Aviation cannot handle all aviation-related issues. The airlines must be encouraged to file their operational plans and the fare structure for every quarter or half-year, and made to stick to it. The peak season has begun. Now is the time for them to maximise revenue and operate to capacity. But having attracted more passengers to travel by air with affordable fares and off-season discounts, the airlines need to resist the temptation of raising the fares to abnormal levels and making a fast buck when one of them is hit by a strike and forced to cut services. Even in an industry that is so strapped for revenue, such moves will be short-sighted and will only erode goodwill and turn away passengers. The interests of the travelling public need to be protected.