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BW Businessworld

Air India’s Maharajas

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The strike at Air India by former Indian Airlines pilots has stretched for a whole week as it now enters its last legs. The pilots have failed to extract very much from a management that is already on the brink and have in the process got six pilots sacked and their union, ICPA, derecognised.

How logical is the former Indian Airlines' pilots demand for parity in wages with Air India pilots? Not very it would seem, since the world over in all airlines, pilots and co-pilots of narrow body aircraft earn less than their wide-body counterparts. Nowhere will a B737 commander earn as much as an A330 one.

If the pilots were agitated because their remunerations that are linked to flying hours  have come down as their total flying has decreased, what can anyone do? The market dictates which routes the airline will fly and if it is unable to compete with rivals on those routes, certain routes will be discontinued. If in the process, the total hours flown by some pilots come down, it can't be helped.

If the pilots are protesting the purchase of the new aircraft, which is bleeding the airline due to high interest charges, and the way the airline is being run by present or past managements, then they need to be upfront about it and say that that is why they are protesting.

If you have followed the sequence of this strike, the pilots primarily started the agitation seeking pay parity, but switched gears mid-way when they found no real sympathy for their original cause — with take-home salaries in the range of Rs 24-60 lakh a year, it is difficult to argue that it is tough to make ends meet.

Also, there is no end to this parity issue — Air India ground staffers say they earn less than former Indian Airlines ground staff. So now if the pilots' issue is dealt with, what happens to the ground staffers' grievance? The fact is if this merger had happened at a happier time and the airline was earning huge profits, one could argue for some parity in pay and working conditions. But Air India's situation at present is far from happy.

In fact, the most fantastic thing about this strike is its timing. Air India is on the brink of closure. Already some Rs 2,000 crore of public funds have been pumped in to keep this animal breathing — none of which can really be justified by anyone. Any further drop in revenues, brand image and market share could actually lead to a shut-down — something more and more Cabinet ministers seem to be favouring as the months go by.

Further, it is after all a free market. No one is holding the former Indian Airlines' pilots or any of the staff with a gun to their heads. They are more than free to quit if they are so unhappy, and welcome to find jobs in other airlines where they will feel happier. But the striking pilots are well aware that they are a pampered lot, and the life of a private airline pilot is a lot tougher. This should be one clear message from the management and the government to all Air India staff — go join a private airline and see how much easier and how much more comfortable your life is. It's a free country and a free market.

Everyone agrees that the mess that Air India is in today is not of the pilots' making, that the merger has not gone the way it was envisaged, that several ministers — including Praful Patel who held charge till January this year — are heavily to blame for the state one finds the airline in today, but this is hardly the time to strike work and cause further losses to the carrier. Public sympathy and patience is already at an all-time low. Another push and it may be all over for the erstwhile Maharajas.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 16-05-2011)