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AI strike enters 2nd day: Passengers hit hard

Last updated on: May 9, 2012 17:48 IST

AI strike enters 2nd day: Passengers hit hard

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Our Correspondent in New Delhi

The standoff between Air India pilots and the government spilled over into Day 2, with 150 pilots continuing to strike work after calling in sick.

The strike has led to at least 13 international and domestic flights being cancelled.

Thousands of passengers were left stranded after Air India failed to intimate them about their flight status, leaving them to scramble for information and collect their baggage, some of which had already been checked in despite long delays and eventual cancellations.

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Photographs: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters
Tags: Air India

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The government reacted sharply by sacking 10 pilots on Tuesday, and derecognised the union of pilots currently on strike, but the pilots did not back off.

The Air India management, meanwhile, reassigned some flights on the brink of cancellation to pilots who did report on duty.

This is the second strike by Air India pilots this year, followed by the sudden strike in January when pilots refused to work because their salaries had not been paid.

Interestingly, other Indian airlines' ground and support staff have been seen to strike work first, with pilots striking work last.

In Air India, however, pilots have often been the first to go on strike.

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Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
Tags: Air India

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What is the problem?

Things have not been right with Air India's pilots ever since the carrier Indian Airlines was merged with Air India five years ago.

However, the merger notwithstanding, two separate unions -- one representing the pilots of Air India and known as the Indian Pilots' Guild, and the other representing pilots of Indian Airlines and known as the Indian Commercial Pilots' Association -- continued to function within the same airline Air India.

From the beginning of the merger, the ICPA demanded parity in pay with pilots from Air India, and last year, 880 pilots of ICPA struck work for 10 days to further this demand.

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Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters

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The problem resurfaced this year when the IPG demanded that only the 500 pilots that fly internationally would exclusively train for the Boeing Dreamliner that Air India is to induct in its fleet later this month.

The matter had reached a head early this year when the IPG demanded a re-jig of the training schedule, which comprised an equal number of pilots from both entities.

The Supreme Court finally had to step in and ratify the condition that the new aircraft would have an equal number of trained pilots from both the IPG and the ICPA.

A pilot said, "This pooling of pilots from the other union will harm our careers. We cannot have an equal number of pilots from both, there should be a proper formula worked out."

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Photographs: Reuters

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Concurrently, pilots began to protest against an 'unfair' meting out of promotions last month.

The government derecognised the IGP on Tuesday and sealed its offices in Delhi and Mumbai.

Union civil aviation minister Ajit Singh warned the errant pilots of 'strong action' if they continued the strike.

Deeming the strike illegal, he said that Air India was on the verge of bankruptcy and the government was trying to bail it out (the most recent bailout package of Rs 30,000 crore or Rs 300 billion in March 2012), but with the bailout was the pre-condition that pilots would have to perform.

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Photographs: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

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"With this action (of calling a strike), they should consider what the result would be," the minister said in Delhi on Tuesday.

Singh further alleged that with the strike entering its second day, not a single representative of the striking pilots had come forward to discuss the issue with the government.

Passengers' woes

Naturally, such an impasse hits passengers the hardest.

When Kolkata resident Ranjit Kadam came to Mumbai last week for a conference, he was looking forward to flying to seeing his daughter Panchi in the US.

"She is on a break from her studies and her brother and I decided to visit her for two weeks. But our flight was cancelled this morning after we were assured that it would take off after some delay," Kadam said.

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Photographs: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters

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"We are wondering if we should book another airline or wait for Air India to give us some information."

He alleged that airline staff did not issue any instructions about the delayed, and subsequently cancelled, flight.

"Despite repeated pleas for information, nobody has told us anything. Who will refund our money?" he said.

Chitra Kalwe Singh (43) said she had anticipated a cancellation when her cousin's AI flight to New York was cancelled from Delhi on Tuesday. "I was to go to Singapore to meet my mother-in-law," she explained, adding that her flight was a direct one to Singapore from Delhi.

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Photographs: Reuters

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"My son kept checking the flight status on the Internet, but there was no cancellation shown," she says.

"I thought that the airline would inform me if the flight was cancelled, but I have still not received an intimation."

She said she had a similar experience with another airline striking work a year ago, which was why she did not bother going to the airport.

"It is not worthwhile to try and get answers out of airline staff.

"Nobody answers your questions and nobody tells you what is going on.

"It is easier to book tickets on another airline that is more responsible in its duties."

Others faced trouble retrieving their baggage, which had already been checked in.

"They even issued me a boarding pass," an irate passenger said.

"What is the sense in issuing a boarding pass for a flight that is going to be cancelled? This is totally unacceptable."


Photographs: Jewella C Miranda/Rediff Archives
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