Vistara asserts ‘over 98%’ pilots signed new contracts after sizeable number said to have rejected pay terms

Industry sources, however, contend that the number of Vistara pilots who had not accepted the new pay structure announced in mid-February were far more in number than the airline was publicly admitting.

Updated - April 06, 2024 09:58 pm IST

Published - April 06, 2024 03:16 pm IST

Vistara airline has more than 1,100 pilots on its rolls

Vistara airline has more than 1,100 pilots on its rolls | Photo Credit: Reuters

Vistara’s CEO Vinod Kannan on Saturday asserted that “over 98% of pilots” had signed new contracts entailing a new pay structure, which has been cited by industry sources as a key issue that had led to a spate of recent flight cancellations and delays at the full service airline that is set to merge with the Tata Group’s Air India. The industry sources, however, contended that the number of Vistara pilots who had not accepted the new pay structure announced in mid-February were far more in number than the airline was publicly admitting.

“Over 98% of pilots have signed the new contract,” Mr. Kannan said in an e-mailed statement to The Hindu. “Having said that, we are aware that some pilots have some concerns and queries regarding the contract. We are engaging with them to clarify and resolve the same,” he stated, adding that this had, however, ‘not caused any visible spike in attrition’ among pilots.

The CEO, who had held a town hall with pilots on April 4 to address their concerns after the airline was forced to cancel 150 flights and suffer delays to more than 200 other flights in the preceding three to four days, is reported to have told participants at that event that 270 pilots had not signed the contract, according to multiple people who had participated at the online meeting and spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue.

This would imply that almost a fourth of Vistara’s total cockpit crew were opposed to the terms of the new contract, which cuts the guaranteed minimum flying allowance from 70 hours to 40 hours resulting in a monthly pay cut of ₹80,000 to ₹1.4 lakh for First Officers (FOs or junior pilots). The airline has more than 1,100 pilots on its rolls.

Acknowledging the gravity of the recent disruptions to the airline’s flight schedules and its impact on customers, Mr. Kannan said in the statement, “In the light of the recent disruptions in our network owing to various operational reasons, we acknowledge and are deeply concerned about the inconvenience this has caused to our customers”.

We are addressing this on a war footing... we are continuing to hire more pilots and are also carefully scaling back our operations slightly to provide the much needed resilience, and a buffer in the rosters. We have also deployed larger aircraft like our B787-9 Dreamliner and A321neo aircraft on select domestic routes to accommodate more customers, wherever possible,” he observed, adding that the airline hoped to stabilise operations “by this weekend”.

Industry sources said discontentment among pilots over various issues, including taxing flight schedules, delay in upgrades for FOs to the post of Pilot-in-Command had been brewing for a while, resulting in resignations that had precipitated the disruptions and coincided with the announcement of the new pay structure two months ago. This had particularly angered the FOs, they added.

“As opposed to Commanders who have been on the job for several years, First Officers have the sword of repayment of loans incurred for training hanging over their head,” said Mohan Ranganathan, a veteran former Boeing 737 flying instructor with Air India. “They have agreed to pay EMIs based on their projected income, which will change post the new salary structure. Trainings costs have also escalated sharply in the recent past and the current batch of First Officers across airlines have spent ₹80 lakh to ₹1 crore to complete their training.”

Mr. Kannan is said to have told pilots at the town hall that notwithstanding the refusal of a section of pilots to accept the new pay structure under the revised contract, the airline’s stand remained the same as communicated by the HR department. HR officials had informed pilots that failure to sign the new contract by March 15 would result in consequences that would include their losing a one-time pay out linked to the merger as well as forfeiting their place in the sequence for upgrade.

The CEO is said to have admitted at the town hall that there was a failure to align network expansion with pilot strength leading to them working longer hours and flights being stretched too thin, which had caused the large number of cancellations and delays.

However, it is reliably learnt that Air India is likely to send 15-20 First Officers (FOs) on deputation to Vistara from next week as an equal number of pilots have left the airline to join IndiGo and Qatar. 

Further, to improve the ratio of pilots and aircraft, six planes are expected to be shifted from Vistara and another 14 from Air India to the low-cost international subsidiary in the Tata Group, Air India Express. The planes being moved are all-economy aircraft.

The CEO has already said that the airline will continue to cancel flights till the end of April in order to create a buffer of pilots.

A mismanagement of pilot training has also raised eyebrows within the airline on the alleged impact on safety, as well as resulted in a show-cause notice from the DGCA earlier this month, said the industry sources.

“We are in receipt of a show-cause notice from DGCA and are in discussion with the regulator on this subject,” Mr. Kannan acknowledged in the statement on Saturday.

“The situation is so dire, that the last two Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, including the one that joined the fleet last week on March 29, were ferried from Boeing’s aircraft assembly facility in Charleston [in the U.S.] to New Delhi by the manufacturer’s pilots as the airline didn’t have enough of its own. The Dreamliner delivery was also delayed because of the same issue,” said a person in the know.

“Had Air India not sent its widebody pilots to Vistara, the latter would have to ground as many as three of its widebodies,” said another source.

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