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BW Businessworld

A Lose-Lose Proposition

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Three weeks ago, representatives of the Indian Pilots Guild (IPG) of Air India apparently stormed out of the room of a senior official of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and went on a strike ignoring his advice to refrain from doing so as well as assurances that he would resolve their issues relating to career progression.

It must be a moment they bitterly regret today because as the days have gone by, the derecognised guild members —  who, incidentally, were still on strike when the magazine went to press — have worked themselves into a corner from which there seems little way out.

In fact, in just about three weeks, the pilots, who went on strike for reasons that seemed like shifting sands, have lost everything — their jobs, credibility, weeks of salary and, quite frankly, their dignity. 

Of the 440-plus pilots in the guild, 101 have been sacked. They now want their jobs back. But the ministry has taken a strong stance against 10 pilots whom it "does not want back at any cost". These 10 men, who stuck out their necks for the rest of the guild members, are now holding the other pilots to ransom arguing that since they are being targeted for leading the attack they should not be deserted.

It is a stalemate because the government is clear that it will take back all but those 10 Air India pilots if the rest call off the strike right away. 
The government is examining another possibility: that of sacking the rest of the striking pilots of the guild and then entering into new contracts with those who wish to resume duties. The pilots would no longer be permanent employees and would lose several months of salary and benefits and most allowances. They would be on three-year contracts, which may or may not be renewed — or rather would be renewed on a case-to-case basis.

If the aviation ministry actually acts on this, the pilots stand to lose more than they bargained for. Not only will they lose several privileges, many who are not in peak health condition may not have their contracts renewed easily. Recently, both Emirates and Saudi Airlines interviewed some of the affected pilots and only some have made the cut and been hired. The rest, it appears, were rejected.

Air India, on its part, is carrying on as if it is business as usual. The airline says that after the initial disruption, it is now flying 38 of the 45 flights of its international schedule. Only seven flights have been discontinued, which, in fact, may be a blessing in disguise as these include some of the heavy loss-making routes. 

This may be just posturing but the impression that is being conveyed is that the striking pilots are dispensable. (Personally, however, I think all the pilots will be taken back eventually but this time they may have learned their lesson).

In fact, airline sources say that Air India pilots are more dispensable than those of Indian Airlines, which still corners about 20 per cent of the domestic market whereas with some 55 foreign airlines flying to and from India, Air India's operations being curtailed or even stopped would impact few.

Rarely has the government been so firm in its resolve or the public so disgusted at the turn of events. No wonder the executive pilots of the airline are thanking their stars that they resolutely stayed away from the strike despite pressure from colleagues. 

A senior ministry official, who spoke to me at length on this issue, said that although losses have come down, so have revenues. Therefore, the airline will not have the money to pay many of its employees, thanks to the IPG. Salaries would take more time to come as, said the official, it is doubtful whether any of the bailout money would come through since most of the milestones set by the Cabinet have clearly been missed.

The official said the government would have shut down the international operations if the executive pilots, too, had joined the strike. He almost sounded sorry that they hadn't. 

He also said that life for Air India employees would only get tougher as the days go by. The "crazy" agreements that were signed by past managements will be "scrapped". The airline can no longer afford to pay them "one and a half times the market rates". 

The larger point he made was that times have changed ("the earlier they wake up to this, the better it will be for them") — no one is indispensable, even if you work for the national carrier. Also, the employees will have only themselves to blame for "killing the goose that lays the golden egg".

anjulibhargava(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 11-06-2012)