Airing discontent

It is difficult to see who gained from the 10-day strike by Air India pilots. The pilots, who disrupted 90 per cent of Air India’s flights and crippled the airlines, have only got a promise that their demands, including that for pay parity with those who fly on international routes, would be looked into by a committee. The committee was in any case seized of the demands. The reinstatement of the suspended and dismissed pilots and revocation of the de-recognition of the pilots’ union will restore only status quo ante.

The settlement does not address the substantive issues of the dispute. Neither the government nor the airline management gained. The ministry, which had first taken a tough stand in the face of the strike, later climbed down.

The losers are easy to identify. The travelling public, who had to put up with flight disruptions and inconvenience for many days had to suffer. Air India as a company lost Rs 15 crore per day during the strike. The tax-paying public has to foot this bill. This is over and above the Rs 13,300 crore of the airline’s accumulated losses.

The airline is weighed down heavily by debt, surplus staff and inefficient use of its resources. It has reached a stage where it is losing money every day even when it is working. It has to repay a Rs 40,000 crore loan which has not been put to good use. It is unable to use the large fleet of aircraft it has bought or ordered. Instead, services on profitable routes were curtailed, which obviously benefitted private airlines. All good businesses thrive by competition. But Air India only declined and was pushed to the fourth position from its number one perch.

Obviously this was because of mismanagement and corruption. Several reports have pointed out that political interference and lack of adherence to the best commercial norms have been the main reasons for Air India’s decline. The political masters and the managers have never been made accountable for their faulty decisions. The credibility, reliability and image of the airline have suffered because of recurrent strikes and poor service.

It is difficult to see how it can be turned around any time in the future if the present management system, culture, and state of finances continue. The present agreement is only temporary. Unless the basic problems in the airline’s working are addressed, it will continue to bleed.

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