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Air India cancels domestic bookings as strike worsens

Air India
Delhi/Mumbai:  There appears to be no emergency exit for the Air India strike that’s affecting thousands of passengers.

The pilots who’re on strike defied court orders to return to work; the management of the airline said it will not surrender to pressure and has said no bookings for domestic flights will be accepted till May 3.

700 pilots were on strike this morning; in a gesture of support, many of the 150 executive pilots in managerial posts began calling in sick today.

By lunchtime, 50 flights had been cancelled, most of them operating from either Mumbai or Delhi.
The bone of contention is the disparity between what pilots who work for the same airline are paid. In 2007, Indian Airlines was merged with the other national carrier, Air India. The government-arranged marriage has been cataclysmic from the start. The union was meant to help contain losses; instead, thousands of crores of taxpayers’ money have been injected into the airline without a subsequent high.

The 700 pilots who belong to the Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association (ICPA) were all part of Indian Airlines. They say that four years after the merger, they’re still paid less than the pilots who worked for Air India. They want salaries to be equalized, and arrears to be paid.

“There has been no attempt by the management to reach out to us,” said their spokesperson. A substantial portion of the salary for a pilot from Indian Airlines depends on how many hours he or she flies. With Air India cutting down domestic routes to contain losses, the Indian Commercial Pilots Association says its members are losing out. In comparison, Air India pilots are paid more and fly international routes. (Forum: Should Air India be funded by taxpayers?)

Civil Aviation Minister Vayalar Ravi told the cabinet in Delhi today that he has guaranteed the airline’s management his complete support.

Close to 1600 pilots make about 800 crores, he reportedly pointed out, rebutting the pilots’ demands for higher salaries.

“Many of them are plus two, not even graduates, and they are getting Rs. 3.8 lakh a month…I hope sense will prevail upon these people. Are they starving?” he asked. (Read: 1600 pilots get Rs. 800 crore in salary, says Aviation Minister)

Another two pilots on strike were sacked today – so eight pilots have lost their jobs now since the strike began. “Salary of all pilots at Air India should be paid by one single agreement of Air India. They have withheld our arrears of three years; these should be given back to us. We seek forgiveness from the passengers. We are not responsible for this. Our top management is responsible for this who have lost their senses,” said Captain V K Bhalla, a sacked pilot.

The Air India management returned to the Delhi High Court today, asking that pilots on strike be charged with contempt of court for refusing to get back to work – something the court ordered yesterday. A lawyer for the pilots argued, “In such a disturbed mental state, how can we operate flights and put the passengers’ lives in danger?” The judge retorted, “If you come down to this level, no court of the country will accept your defence. You have the right to challenge the order, but you have no right to defy it.”

For six months last year, the national airline lost 19 crores everyday. Pilots are quick to point out that despite the bleeding balance sheet, the top management is still entitled to free travel for life – even after retirement.

The pilots met the Union Labour Minister, Mallikarjun Kharge today. They’ve asked for more flying hours and for salaries to be paid on time. They also want the airline to st

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