M A I N   N E W S

Airline mess spreads, flyers in tizzy
n AI pilots’ stir enters Day 3
n 21 flights cancelled n Kingfisher pilots too report sick 
Vibha Sharma/Shiv Kumar
Tribune News Service

New Delhi/ Mumbai, May 10
It’s more trouble in the air. Beleaguered flyers, who are reeling under delays and cancellations of flights due to pilots’ stir in Air India, are expected to face tougher times ahead as another troubled carrier, Kingfisher Airlines, today saw its pilots reporting sick to work.

There is no end in sight to the Air India impasse, which entered its third day, forcing the management to cancel 21 flights, including those on international routes, stop bookings on some major long-haul routes for the next five days and sack nine more pilots. More than 150 pilots of the cash-strapped national carrier did not report to work on Thursday.

It has now become clear that neither the government nor the management was in any mood to relent to demands of the erstwhile Air India pilots, owing allegiance to now defunct Indian Pilots Guild (IPG).

IPG pilots are demanding exclusive rights to fly new Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

The Air India crisis and the one looming large over Kingfisher is already manifesting in the form of rising fares, an issue that saw members cutting across the party lines raising concern in the Rajya Sabha.

Talking tough, Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh made it clear that discussion and agitation could not be held together.

Adding that his doors were open for talks provided the pilots gave up the path of agitation, he said pilots had not left any option for the government. “I never said I will not talk to them. If they are not willing to follow court order, how will they talk to me,” he asked.

Holding that interest of the airline and passengers was of paramount interest, Singh said, “If pilots keep reporting sick to work, it will cause disruption. But the prospect of disruption is not going to stop us from taking firm action”.

The minister indicated that the government was open to private investment in the national carrier, but it would take this up on a case-by-case basis.

Surviving on taxpayers' money, the beleaguered national carrier is scheduled to get Rs 30,000 crore fresh equity but the aid was linked to performance. “Pilots need to understand that if Air India does not meet the performance yardsticks set in the plan, that money will not reach them. It's not a one-time deal,” he said.

The Delhi High Court had yesterday held the strike illegal and barred the pilots from any protest action. But despite the order, the pilots remained defiant, saying that the agitation would continue till their demands were met. Even though the day started with the hope that pilots would see reason, or at least comply with the court order by evening it became clear that they too were in no mood to blink

Air India is understood to be working on a Plan B now.

Official sources said the carrier was suspending its international operations to New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Toronto, London, Paris and Frankfurt. Some other foreign destinations were also likely to be affected. It sacked nine more pilots today, taking the total number to 45. The management also moved the Supreme Court on the issue.

Sources said Air India was also looking at options like hiring aircraft on wet lease.

The ICPA, union of pilots belonging to the erstwhile Indian Airlines, have already offered the management its unconditional support.

Flaying the strike, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said the agitating pilots were “stretching the patience” of even those Parliamentarians, who always batted for strengthening the airline. The Rajya Sabha also voiced concern over private airlines raising fares exorbitantly in the wake of Air India strike.

Raising the matter during Zero Hour, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi (BJP) said passengers were facing harassment due to cancellation of AI flights on one hand and hike in fares by private airlines on the other.

Meanwhile, the pilots of Kingfisher Airlines are reporting sick because the management failed to keep its promise of paying their salaries from January onwards.

However, so far, only those flights of Kingfisher Airlines which are operated using turboprop aircraft have been cancelled, according to sources. Some 18 flights to smaller airports like those in Dharamsala, Shimla and Dehradun have been cancelled since the turboprop aircraft are operated by line pilots who have reported sick. Service to the larger cities has so far not been affected though Kingfisher today combined some flights. “There are 80 commanders in the management category who are flying,” an airline executive said. However, the striking pilots told reporters that services will come to a complete halt once these commanders exceed their Flight Duty Time limitations.

Air turbulence

n AI risks losing a $5.8 bn govt bailout. The national airline is due to get $1.3 bn in fresh equity from govt, but this is linked to performance

n India's aviation sector reels under high fuel costs, low fares and a combined debt of $20 bn. Five of the country's 6 main carriers are losing money

n About 500 AI pilots flying international routes say their colleagues from former Indian Airlines should not be trained to fly Dreamliners as it may hurt career of original AI staff

n The two cos were merged in 2007. AI has also been criticized over Dreamliners for 'imposing an undue long-term financial burden'





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