Centre unhappy with Air India pilots strike: Praful Patel

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New Delhi, Sep.29 (ANI): Appealing to the striking Air India pilots to end their four-day-old strike, Union Minister of State for Civil Aviation (Independent charge) Praful Patel on Tuesday warned that if they did not end their agitation quickly, the government and the national carrier would be forced to take emergency measures that could be detrimental to their short and long-term career interests.

Expressing the Centre's unhappiness and concern about the strike that has inconvenienced passengers travelling within the country and abroad, Patel said the government is doing everything in its power to get the national carrier out of the red, and therefore, it was the duty of the pilots to see reason and join in the effort to restore what he called the pride of the nation.

"The current situation is a matter of concern and the Government of India , as the owner of the airline, is not very happy over the strike. The Government of India has been very considerate and there has been a constant endeavour to help the airline come out of its current financial problems," said Patel.

The minister further said that salaries had been paid to airline staff upto July 2009 and that three months ago, a committee had been formed to look into the problems being experienced by the airline and to come up with solutions.

"We believe that the Government of India should support the airline by facilitating the infusion of equity in a phased manner. These measures along with cost reduction measures will facilitate the airline's recovery. While doing this, we appeal to the employees (of the airline) to join in the effort to turn the airline around. All employees must cooperate in turning the airline around. At this time, Air India cannot absorb high cost structures or expenses. I must also state that no decision has been taken on issues such as PLI by the airline management. The airline management has been told to deal with the issues of the pilots and other staff in a sensitive manner," said Patel

Patel's comments came as Air India failed to reach an agreement with striking pilots over cuts in incentives, forcing the airline to consider suspending operations for a fortnight.

It stopped taking bookings and was faced with the prospect of international flight cancellations to add to the 30 domestic ones that it couldn't operate on Monday.

Air India, seeking to stem losses as part of conditions attached to a government rescue, is run by the National Aviation Co. of India Ltd (NACIL).

At the time of going to press, there was no official statement from the carrier on the proposal for suspending operations.

The airline said in a press release late on Monday. "Air India management is deliberating various options in the wake of more pilots reporting sick affecting its operations."

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister Office (PMO) took stock of the ongoing stalemate and directed the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Air India to find an early resolution.

The PMO also told the Civil Aviation Ministry that a lockout is not an option to resolve the issue.

Civil Aviation Secretary M Nambiar briefed top PMO officials here at a meeting, which was also attended by Cabinet Secretary K M Chandrashekhar.

"The Air India management has not taken any decision on the cut of Productivity-Linked Incentives (PLI) or any allowance for the unionized section of employees. Decision regarding the executive employees will be taken only after the committee setup to look into this matter has examined all aspects in consultation with employees," Nambiar said in his statement.

"The disruption of the flights is causing immense problem to the traveling public and bringing disrepute to the airline. In these circumstances, the pilots and all employees must cooperate with the management for the turnaround of the airline," he added.

Nambiar further said that though the Government support is coming, it must be linked to a problem turnaround plan, including cost cutting and revenue enhancement.

"We will advise the management to enter into a comprehensive dialogue with all sections of employees. This strike must end immediately in the interest of the public and this will also stand the airline in good state for future Government support," he later added.

The pilots began their strike on Saturday, weakening the turnaround plan of the ailing carrier. With accumulated losses of Rs7,200 crore and borrowings of up to Rs.15,241 crore at the end of June, up from Rs.6,550 crore in November 2007, Air India has asked the government for a loan and equity infusion of around Rs.15,000 crore.

Earlier this month, hundreds of pilots at India's largest private carrier by passengers, Jet Airways (India) Ltd went on mass sick leave for six days to protest against the firing of two pilots instrumental in forming a pilots' union. Subsequently, two more pilots were sacked. Jet Airways founder chairman Naresh Goyal reinstated all the sacked pilots after first threatening to close the airline.

"The suspension of operations is the only way out for Air India. It can close down and recruit employees on new service conditions and terms. As long as there is no solution to cut cost and increase yields, the cut in PLIs will not do the magic of turnaround," said an aviation expert.

"The management is open to discussion on the composition of the committee of executive pilots referred to in the office order dated 27 September 2009. Orders have been issued that PLI and flying allowance of July 2009 payable in August 2009 be disbursed immediately," Air India said in a statement on Monday.

In other words, the PLI will not be deducted till a fresh circular is issued.

"The schedule for payment of salary and PLI for the coming months will be finalized in consultation with the financial institutions and communicated to all employees shortly," it said.

The Air India board had on September 24 decided to cut incentive payments for officers and top managers by as much as half in a cost-cutting measure covering 7,000 employees out of its total strength of 31,500.

The officers include executive pilots, executive cabin crew and executive engineers. The carrier has not taken a decision on the remaining employees.

Air India said separately on Monday that it was proposing to save up to Rs.1,300 crore in the remaining six months of the current fiscal, while a Rs.400 crore saving would come by rationalizing manpower costs as a part of operational restructuring.

Meanwhile, Jet Airways pilots held a meeting with the striking Air India pilots in Mumbai.

The Jet Pilots Union has expressed solidarity with Air India pilots.

Jet Pilots Union President Girish Kaushik said that all pilots should form a federation to protect their interests.

All pilots across airlines need to come together and resolve the crisis together, Kaushik added. (ANI)

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