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BW Businessworld

The ‘Mouths To Feed’ Crew

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How many of you would continue to work in an organisation where there is no career progression, no pride in one's work, no sense of achievement or objective, where people with less experience earn more than you and where salaries are not paid fully or on time?

Not very many, I can assure you. Yet Air India pilots claim that they have continued serving the airline since "passengers are their top priority" and they don't want passengers to suffer. They have "loans to pay and mouths at home to feed", yet the pilots have been flying for many months despite erratic salary payments and schedules.

Why? Normally, if people are so unhappy with their jobs, it is best for them to leave. Change is good for people and there's certainly no harm in seeking a change when the company you work for does not reciprocate all that you do for it. After all, these are qualified, good pilots who must improve their prospects since they have "mouths to feed".

But who will resign from an airline that pays Rs 2.2 crore in allowances even when one is grounded? Which private carrier will allow you to filch caviar, liquor bottles and even food freely (the vigilance department is investigating 161 such cases)? Which airline will offer you and your family business class travel for life, years after you retire? And if a newspaper report is to be believed, which private airline will allow you to fly for another carrier while you are on its rolls?

So I fully understand that instead of resigning en masse, the pilots decided to strike work. Only someone not in his right mind would quit.
Now, for the last 10 days or so I have been trying to figure out the prime motivation behind this fourth strike by pilots since May 2011. Are they such a sickly bunch?

I thought at first that the strike was to protest the training of erstwhile Indian Airlines pilots on the Dreamliner — that's what one senior airline pilot told me on day one.

But on day two and three, this cause — which made them sound rather petty and which the court dismissed anyway — was abandoned in favour of some "core issues".

Are they on strike because with today's inflation their salaries don't allow them to feed these "mouths at home"? For some, Rs 5-12 lakh a month may be enough to feed an entire village and then again, it may not be enough for others to feed a family of four.

But the pilots I spoke to denied this. They said that they were not being petty and were only demanding past dues or higher packages. They were on strike because "core issues" remain unresolved and that I should not try to "trivialise" their problems.

Fine, but why did they choose precisely this juncture for the strike? At the moment, the management is busy trying to meet the milestones set by the Cabinet based on which the Rs 30,000-crore bailout package would be released. As I understood it, unmet milestones would mean no money.

To this they have no answer. Most of them privately agree that the strike is very illtimed, and that they actually went on strike to prevent the Indian Airlines pilots from being trained on the Dreamliner. Now, thanks to the court and the fact that it sounds really small, they can't say so aloud.

Pilots do, however, have three valid points that I think need to be heard. One, they argue that the airline — especially the erstwhile Air India – was doing fine during the J.R.D. Tata era and that its downfall is inextricably linked to the series of bureaucrats and politicians who have governed it since. No offence to Rohit Nandan, but he and his ilk need to be politely shown the exit door.

Second, they point out that mere equity infusion in the current scenario will not help — the running and handling of the carrier calls for a major overhaul, a D check frankly, and this can only be done by an outside aviation professional who is given a free hand, which includes powers to fire non-performers.

And third, since the cursed merger — which many pilots had supported at the time — cannot be undone, the best option may be to set up one holding company and run the two airlines as two separate "verticals" (music to many consultant's ears!) where the staff of both have nothing to do with each other. Expecting them to work together in harmony is as absurd as asking the Indian and Pakistani political leadership to turn bhai-bhai.

And one last thing. Go ahead with the two ground handling and engineering subsidiaries as approved by the Cabinet before the stubborn unions dig in their heels and try to derail another initiative that could help revive this airline. 


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 28-05-2012)