The “mass sick leave” protest by the pilots of Jet Airways, well into its third day, has caused a massive disruption of air travel. It has come at a time when the aviation industry is going through a very difficult period and Jet Airways could hardly afford to ground so many aircraft and cancel, on an average, about 200 flights a day. The airline, which has won several national and international awards during its 15-year service, has hit a bad patch financially, like the other airlines. In the first quarter this year, it reported a loss of over Rs.200 crore. The Jet group, including the no-frills JetLite, accounts for a little over 26 per cent of the passenger traffic in the country and will be losing an estimated Rs.18 crore each day on account of the cancellations. Going by the agitating pilots’ version, it was a legitimate effort to form an association that led to the sacking of two pilots, which in turn triggered the ‘sick leave’ campaign. The pilots, who have floated a National Aviators Guild, have also claimed that the management has sacked three more of their colleagues since they launched the agitation.
Jet Airways, which has so much at stake, including its brand image, can hardly afford this turbulence. Its Chairman, Naresh Goyal, has taken a tough stance on the mass action by the pilots and expressed his willingness to talk to the pilots without giving in to their demand for setting up a union. The pilots, on the other hand, want their sacked colleagues to be reinstated, so that they could resume duty immediately. Though the dispute over the sacking is under conciliation with the Labour authorities and the Mumbai High Court has ruled a strike illegal, there appears to be a stalemate. Caught in this jam are the hapless passengers, who have either cancelled their trips or paid higher fares to switch to other airlines, some of whom have made a fast buck by raising their fares steeply. Both sides will need a face-saving formula. Unless there is a give-and-take approach, the stalemate will continue. If forming an association or union remains the only charge against the sacked pilots the management’s case becomes indefensible. The pilots need to look at the plight of passengers too, while fighting for their right to form a guild. While the other airlines are watching the developments anxiously, the Civil Aviation Ministry appears to be in no hurry to step in and take a stand on this sensitive issue. Both the Labour Commissioner and the Civil Aviation Ministry need to intervene without any further delay and end the impasse in the interests of air passengers.