Why are Vistara flights being cancelled? | Explained

What are the concerns about hectic rosters? What is the new pay structure which has caused widespread anger among junior pilots? How are pilots protesting against it? How has poor planning in training adversely exacerbated pilot shortage at the airline?

Updated - April 07, 2024 10:49 pm IST

Published - April 07, 2024 10:24 pm IST

Vistara Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner during its launch in New Delhi.

Vistara Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner during its launch in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: PTI

The story so far: Vistara recently saw a large number of flight cancellations and delays which is being attributed to a mismatch between continuous route expansion and the strength of pilots at the airline. But coinciding with the announcement of a new pay structure ahead of the merger with Air India and deep discontentment among pilots over it, the disruption has unravelled a challenging consolidation of the four Tata Group airlines.

How bad was the massive flight disruption at Vistara?

Between March 31 and April 3, Vistara saw over 150 flights cancelled and 200 delayed for over two hours resulting in a massive disruption at the airline, primarily due to challenges with “crew unavailability” due to multiple factors. This was a sharp escalation from the “15-20” daily cancellations that started in mid-February, soon after the airline announced that a pay structure implemented for pilots at Air India would also be extended to Vistara. This had led to widespread anger among junior pilots (First Officers) as the new salary formula cuts the minimum guaranteed flying allowance of 70 hours to 40 hours and would result in a pay cut of ₹80,000 to ₹1.4 lakh for them out of a salary of ₹3.4 lakh. There are also concerns among senior pilots over their seniority in the merged entity over a combined seniority list being prepared that isn’t fully being implemented.

Also read: Eight reasons for Vistara’s massive flight cancellations

As things spiralled out of control, the airline announced in a press statement that it had decided to “temporarily reduce the number of flights” as well as deploy the bigger Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner and A321neo to accommodate more number of passengers. The DGCA too sought a daily report on flight cancellations and delays and instructed the airline to ensure affected passengers receive refunds and compensation as per regulations. The airline’s CEO, Vinod Kannan, has said that voluntary cancellations will continue till the end of April and industry sources say the airline has cancelled nearly 1,000 flights between March 31 to April 30 to streamline flight operations.

What are the reasons for crew unavailability?

The reasons are multi-fold. An important reason for cancellations according to pilot sources as well as Vistara’s CEO was the roster crunch as there was a mismatch between network expansion at the airline and the strength of its pilots, resulting in a high number of working hours for pilots and stressful combination of flights. Some pilots said that it was a norm for them to receive “10-12” calls on their offs to be called for duty. Their rosters would also be changed on a regular basis with just a 12-hours notice and pilots complained there was no stability in their lifestyle. Most flights would require pilots to spend nights outside their home base and return only for their weekly off. Pilots who had long felt a sense of loyalty towards the airline got fed up with the mismanagement of rosters, that had been going on for nearly a year, and stopped co-operating.

It was around the same time that the airline announced a new pay structure for pilots in mid-February ahead of its merger with Air India which would adversely affect First Officers.

Soon, First Officers began to discuss plans to report sick in protest and their refusal to co-operate intensified with calls from the roster team for unplanned flights being rejected. As a result, the airline began to see 10-15 cancellations daily, which further escalated from March 31. The CEO has denied that the pilots went on a protest leave, and said pilots usually claim unutilised sick leaves at the end of the year which could have been managed better. However, in the same meeting he also told pilots that 270 out of 1,100 pilots, or a total 24.5%, had not accepted the new contract but later claimed in a press statement that 98% of pilots had accepted the new salary terms.

There are also concerns over poor planning in training resulting in delays of up to two years for First Officers to be upgraded to the post of Commanders, leading to them quitting to join other airlines. There were also delays in training pilots for Boeing 787 Dreamliners as a result of which Air India had to send 16 Commanders on deputation to Vistara.

What are the implications of these events on the merger?

The four Tata Group airlines are being merged into two to form a low-cost carrier (LCC) to compete with IndiGo and a full-service carrier. The former includes the merger of AIX Connect (formerly AirAsia India) and Air India Express, and the latter includes the merger of Vistara with Air India. The consolidation of the two LCCs is complete, while a National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) nod for the latter is awaited and the integration is likely to conclude by mid 2025.

Though the recent events in Vistara are unlikely to impact the merger in any substantial manner, they bring to the fore challenges in different work cultures. At Vistara, pilots have blamed expats helming affairs without enough understanding of local needs. At Air India, too, old timers blame an expanding “white man’s club”, both at leadership positions as well as at second and third rung, who they say are not familiar with the Indian regulatory environment and bureaucracy resulting in multiple penalties from the DGCA, including a temporary suspension of its simulator training facilities.

While some change for the good has happened such as better upgrades from narrowbody to widebody aircraft for pilots, aspects such as training are known to be gradually deteriorating resulting once again in a mismatch of crew requirement for an expanding fleet.

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