It has been over 50 days since a section of Air India’s pilots reported “sick” and launched an agitation, basically on issues related to career advancement. Under Ajit Singh, the Ministry of Civil Aviation has taken a tough stand and — for the first time — refused to buckle: call off the agitation, report for work, and we can talk. The last time Air India pilots went on strike — they had not been paid for four to six months and were demanding their salary — there was considerable public sympathy and the government had to come up with a schedule for payment of arrears. But this time, the protests began over what was really a personal plaint: that pilots from the erstwhile Indian Airlines were being asked to train for the new fleet of 787s rather than those from the original ‘Mahararaja.’ Of course, the striking pilots clubbed this issue with the other problems the merger of the two airlines has generated and how nothing had been done over the past five years to resolve them. Even so, Mr. Singh was able to take the high moral ground and insist the pilots call off their protest first before talks are held.
With the passage of time, the protesting pilots have mellowed. They are now insisting on two basic demands — that the hundred-odd sacked pilots be taken back, and that their Guild, which was derecognised, be recognised again. These are not difficult demands to meet, though the Minister has every right to insist on talks without any preconditions. It is perhaps time for both sides to put the future of Air India first and find the space for a compromise. In the first round of talks, an agreement on these two demands can be reached, and then the serious issues can be taken up for negotiations. If the government and Civil Aviation Ministry are not prepared to do that, this can only mean they have decided the national airline is beyond redemption. No private or commercial airline would have allowed a strike called over such flimsy grounds to drag on for two months and cripple an already sick company. The end point of any fresh negotiations should be a professional management and an airline that operates on largely commercial considerations, with no political interference. This means the airline should not be run in such a way that it keeps coming back to the government for a bailout. A fresh Rs. 30,000 crore package over a nine-year period has already been worked out and needs to be implemented. But for that to happen, the strike which has badly affected India’s international operations must end immediately.