Talking tough, Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh on Friday told striking Air India pilots that the airline may hire new pilots if they refuse to end their agitation soon.
Singh, who agreed to meet a group of protesting pilots for the first time since the strike began 18 days back, also bluntly told them that the mounting losses due to the agitation may make it difficult for the airline to pay the wage arrears to all employees by June as promised.
"We can think of hiring new pilots," he told the pilots if they continue with the strike. His remarks came after a 90-minute meeting with five pilots of the Indian Pilots' Guild which is spearheading the agitation.
Air India CMD Rohit Nandan was asked to join the meeting at the fag end.
IPG sources said they were holding consultations with legal experts to decide on the future course of action. IPG is insisting on reinstatement of 101 sacked pilots and resolution of issues relating to their career progression.
In Mumbai, the Bombay high court ticked off the IPG for persisting with the strike by defying court orders, thereby inconveniencing passengers.
"You (IPG) may have problems but first comply with Delhi high court order. Then you can go sort out your issues.
You cannot harass the general public like this," a vacation bench of justices S J Kathawala and P D Kode observed while hearing an IPG petition challenging its derecognition.
During his meeting, Singh reassured the pilots that there would be no victimisation if they resumed duty immediately and their grievances would be considered.
"We reiterated the stand of the government that it is an illegal strike. It has caused untold miseries to passengers.
Air India has lost much and therefore they should come back to work immediately," he said.
The minister said that he had stated in Parliament that "we won't be vindictive. We understand their problems also. Lot of young people are there . . .. They are also worried, we also realise that we want them back. But it is for them to decide."
He said that the pilots began their agitation without serving a notice and "reported sick when they were not".
IPG has been at loggerheads with the AI management over its decision to let erstwhile IA pilots to train on advanced Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft.
It had protested against the management's decision and demanded that pilots from IA not be allowed to train on the wide-bodied aircraft until a comprehensive career progression policy was put in place.
In its petition before the Bombay High Court, the IPG contended that Air India had not given them any notice before derecognising their union.
Singh is understood to have told the pilots that the ailing airline had suffered a great deal not only in terms of financial losses but also on its image and the people's confidence in it.
The strike has so far caused an estimated loss of nearly Rs 300 crore (Rs 3 billion) to Air India, which has been operating curtailed international operations.
The national carrier has announced the contingency plan would remain effective till June 30.
Under the interim schedule, Air India will operate 38 international flights per day instead of 45 that it operates under normal conditions.
While most flights affected are those to Europe and North America where a curtailed operation is on, the destinations not covered under this schedule are Hong Kong, Osaka, Seoul and Toronto.
All flights to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Singapore, Thailand and SAARC countries are being operated as per normal schedule.
Domestic operations of Air India are also carrying on normally and there has been no disruption on this front due to the present agitation, officials said.