x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Air India limps back to normal after costly strike

Hundreds of pilots had walked off the job to demand wage parity with colleagues also flying on international routes.

NEW DELHI // Flag-carrier Air India's flight operations were gradually returning to normal Saturday after pilots ended a 10-day strike that cost the ailing airline millions of dollars in lost revenues.

Close to 700 pilots working for the domestic service of state-run Air India launched the strike to demand wage parity with colleagues flying international routes.

"The pilots are already reporting back to work," the airline's general manager K. Swaminathan told AFP on Saturday after union leaders announced an end to the walkout late the previous night.

"We are stepping up operations and in the next 48 hours we should be operating at normal capacity," he said.

The strike, which stranded tens of thousands of domestic passengers, further damaged the image of the so-called "Maharajah of the skies" which once monopolised Indian airspace but now has just 15 percent of passenger traffic.

The union claimed victory but Indian media said the pilots emerged empty-handed from the strike at the debt-laden airline, which has received vast infusions of taxpayers' money.

"Pilots win nothing," said the Hindustan Times newspaper in a headline.

The pilots climbed down from demands for immediate pay parity with pilots flying international routes and accepted government promises to look into their complaints.

"The government has assured us it will look into all our demands," said Indian Commercial Pilots' Association president A.S. Bhinder.

The strikers were all from the former state-run domestic carrier Indian Airlines, which was merged in 2007 with international carrier Air India in a bid to create a more cost-efficient national carrier.

But since then, the airline has come close to financial ruin -- blamed by the pilots on corrupt and incompetent government and airline officials.

Union officials allege that the civil aviation ministry took away profitable routes from Air India and handed them to a clutch of private airlines, but the government says the carrier suffers from a bloated cost structure.

Air India posted losses of 34.5 billion rupees ($771 million) in the first half of the last fiscal year on top of a loss of 55.5 billion rupees ($1.23 billion) during the previous 12 months, according to government figures.

Civil Aviation Minister Vayalar Ravi said that a committee headed by Justice D.N. Dharmadhikari, which had already been set up before the strike to examine the pilots' pay demands, would look at all merger-related issues.

The "interests of all sections of employees will be taken care of" by the committee, which would submit its report in four months, he added.

The walkout forced Air India to cancel 70 to 80 percent of its domestic flights, costing it about 150 million rupees ($3.35 million) a day in revenues, Air India's Swaminathan told AFP.

The strike has prompted calls for the carrier to be privatised but critics of such a move say Air India would end up being sold to private airline companies with close links to government officials.