Rein in bullies

Though Air India pilots have called off their strike, it has only highlighted the serious problems afflicting the national carrier. The Jet Airlines pilots who recently went on strike had a more genuine reason for their action. Air India pilots’ grouse was totally unacceptable. The management effected a 25 to 50 per cent cut in their productivity-linked incentives as part of a cost-cutting plan. Considering that Air India is a sick and bankrupt enterprise, the pilots should have gracefully accepted the management’s efforts to turn it around. Private airlines had reduced similar incentives long ago. Air India staff, especially pilots, are better paid than their counterparts in other airlines. They had no reason to complain and hold the airline to ransom, cause more financial loss through cancellation of flights and create inconvenience to passengers.

While the entire airline industry is in doldrums, Air India suffers from intractable problems of its own creation. It is a white elephant bleeding the exchequer, run like an indifferent government department. The merger between Air India and Indian Airlines has not taken off. It has an accumulated loss of Rs 7,200 crore and is heavily in debt. It is overstaffed, with about 150 employees per aircraft when the industry norm is 100. In three years the loss-making airline paid Rs 1,400 crore as bonus to the staff. It has sought a bailout from the government, which has been agreed to on condition that the airline is restructured and costs are brought down. What it needs is professional management free of political intervention and operations based on commercial considerations. That seems to be difficult in the face of the vested interests on the government’s side and the unwillingness of the staff to co-operate in any effort to improve the sorry state of affairs.

While the pilots have reported for duty, the ground staff is preparing for a strike.
The strike was called off on an assurance from the government that the pilots’ demands would be sympathetically considered. It shows that the airline management will in future be unable to take any tough decisions. If that is so, why should more and more tax payers’ money be spent on a losing venture that serves no great national purpose? Air passengers have many other options now. The message from the strike is that the turnaround plan may not work. The government will have to think of harsher measures like divestment which were once considered.

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