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Wednesday, 09 May 2012 16:52
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A heavily unionised Air India can never take off
Aviation minister Ajit Singh has done well to ensure Air India’s management told striking pilots that they’d face action if they didn’t rejoin duty by 6pm Tuesday evening. And even before the deadline, Air India sent doctors to the houses of the 100 pilots who fell ill, suddenly and synchronously—10 pilots were sacked and a senior Air India official said the Indian Pilots Guild (IPG), the union of the pilots of the erstwhile Air India, had been de-recognised. While the management may change its mind on this later, the fact that strict action is being taken from the start makes it likely the striking unions will fall in line soon—in November, when 120 of Air India’s pilots went on strike, protesting against pilots of the erstwhile Indian Airlines being trained on the Dreamliner, Air India’s timid management just decided to postpone training! Once the problem of the striking pilots is dealt with, the other issue is of the incompetent management that hasn’t been able to deal with the demands of the erstwhile Air India and Indian Airlines unions—with both wanting the better parts of the wage agreements of the other, the airline is the only sufferer.
What Parliament has to ask, since the government isn’t, is whether the R30,000 crore bailout plan for the airline is just throwing money down the drain. The airline, even the consultant report on it makes clear, has an uphill task ahead, more so since a lot of the turnaround is predicated on the belief the government will keep the number of new bilaterals to the minimum, of there being no relaxation in the ‘competitive scenario’. Even more important, however, is the fact that, all these years after Air India and Indian Airlines were merged, the airlines retain their distinct identities and the unions still retain their earlier allegiance. If IPG was upset about pilots of Indian Airlines (represented by the Indian Commercial Pilots Association) being trained on the Dreamliner, ICPA had approached the Supreme Court to ensure only IPG pilots were not trained on the Dreamliner. While the Supreme Court then said Air India’s management had to ensure half of both sets of pilots were to be trained on the Dreamliner, surely no airline can be run if the unions continue to be at loggerheads and place their rights over those of fare-paying passengers—following this strike, 4 international flights from Delhi and Mumbai had to be cancelled.
This is a golden chance for the management, under a minister who is open to the idea of reforms, to take a tough stance with unions. Indeed, since there is no certainty the next minister, whenever s/he takes over, will be as tough, Air India’s bailout must be made contingent on its being privatised. That, of course, presumes Parliament’s heart beats for the taxpayer whose money is being squandered.
 
 

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