On the eighth day of the agitation by the pilots of the ailing Air India, which has thrown the national carrier's international flights into total disarray, the government promised on Tuesday to look into their grievances but asked them to report for duty.
As the Opposition and the Left parties gunned for Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh in the Lok Sabha, he asserted that Air India would have to perform to get a bailout package from the government. He said the airline had incurred a loss of nearly Rs. 150 crore due to the strike. Air India is to get a Rs. 30,000 crore package spread over the next few years, provided it reached certain milestones and met performance parameters.
As part of its contingency plan, Air India has curtailed and clubbed many of its flights to the U.S. and Europe in a bid to bring some semblance of stability in its international operations. The flight cancellations during the peak holiday season has hit the travel plans of hundreds of passengers.
The national carrier will operate daily return services with Boeing 777-300 extended range aircraft to Europe and the U.S. Instead of operating separate flights to the U.S. and Europe, Air India will now fly on Delhi-Paris-New York, Delhi-Frankfurt-Chicago and Delhi-London sectors under a contingency plan that will be put in place from May 16 to May 20.
“We will be operating a minimum number of flights by clubbing flights to the U.S. and European destinations,” an Air India official said.
The Delhi-Paris flight has been clubbed with Delhi-JFK (New York). The flight will leave Delhi, land in Paris and then go onwards to New York and back to Delhi. The airline has also stopped bookings on its ultra long-haul routes till Thursday.
The national carrier will operate 21 daily flights from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode, Ahmedabad and Bangalore to Singapore, Bangkok, Dubai, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dammam, Muscat and Male. It will also operate two daily flights between Delhi and Kathmandu.
Air India will operate four flights a week between Mumbai and Jeddah and three flights a week between Delhi and Jeddah and Delhi and Shanghai. There will be twice weekly operations in the Mumbai-Hyderabad-Jeddah, Kochi-Kozhikode-Jeddah, Mumbai-Riyadh, Riaydh-Kochi, Delhi-Tokyo, and Dalhi-Riyadh routes, the airline said in a statement.
It said all domestic operations were sticking to the normal schedule and there were no disruptions.
In a related development, seven Air India unions, in a letter to Mr. Singh, have offered to mediate to break the impasse. The joint forum of AI Service Engineers' Association, AI Aircraft Engineers' Association, AI Officers' Association, AI Cabin Crew Association, AI Employees' Union, AI Engineer's Association and Air Corporation Employee's Union have sought his intervention as the “head of the family.”
“At this juncture, of total deadlock, we plead your esteemed office to be proactive and, if required, we are ready to offer our services under your direction to be mediators between the Civil Aviation Ministry/Air India Management and the Indian Pilots Guild,” they said.
The unions said the merger of Air India and Indian Airlines was responsible for the present mess. “A series of strike notices and two disruptions [last year's ICPA strike and the ongoing IPG agitation] are the outcome of the ill-conceived merger,” the letter said.
Air India has cancelled 10 international flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Newark, Riyadh, Osaka, Frankfurt, London, Paris and Jeddah.
Meanwhile, a medical summary issued by the Civil Aviation Ministry said most of the AI pilots who called in sick were neither found at home by the doctors sent by the airline nor did they report to the doctors empanelled by the carrier. Their mobile phones were also unreachable.
Indicating that this was suspected all along, the Civil Aviation Minister said the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) would take action against them.
Air India management has already sacked 71 striking pilots who are protesting against the rescheduling of training programme for the soon-to-be inducted Boeing 787 Dreamliner and issues related to their career progression.