India’s national carrier Air India on Tuesday cancelled 185 flights due to the stir by nearly half of its 1,600 pilots, whose nine union leaders were served notice for criminal contempt of court for disobeying an order to immediately end the agitation. A two-member bench of the Delhi high court issued notice to the nine pilots who are office bearers of the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA) — the union that has called the strike — for ignoring a stay order on the agitation last Friday. “All the nine should remain present in the court while the criminal contempt proceedings shall be carried out May 25,” said the two-member bench of justice BD Ahmed and justice Veena Birbal. The nine including the president and general secretary are: AS Bhinder, Rishab Kapoor, Ramesh Gangadharan, Rajesh Kuyeskar, Ritesh Mathankar, Nitin Mahengade, Anup Jain, Amitesh Ahuja and Sakeel Naqvi. “We will continue our strike. We are prepared to face any consequence. We know we are right and we have the support of 800 pilots with us,” Captain Bhinder said after the court notice, adding, “We will also appeal against this notice soon.”
Close to half of Air India’s 1,600 pilots, who were earlier working for the now defunct Indian Airlines have been on strike since April 26 midnight, demanding parity in pay with their counterparts in Air India. Indian Airlines was merged with Air India in 2007. Speaking on the situation on Day Seven of the strike, a senior Air India official said, “We operated around 40 flights on our domestic network today and some 185 flights were cancelled. So far, the strike has caused a direct loss of over Rs 70 crore.” The official said the curtailed operation of the airline was still on and that the load factor of passengers had also reduced since fresh bookings were stalled till May 6. “We will be able to tide over this soon.”
As per the new contingency plan the airline will run 100-120 flights on the domestic and regional overseas sector, including the operations of the sister domestic budget carrier till the strike continues, said the official. Air India has also hired an Airbus aircraft of Kingfisher Airlines to lessen the burden of passengers. Under the operations plan, the airline will fly fewer flights and only use wide-bodied aircraft.
During the hearing on contempt proceedings, the court on Tuesday appointed senior advocate Sidharth Luthra amicus curiae to assist in the impasse between the management and its striking pilots, and asked the two sides to “put an end” to it immediately. The observations sought by the amicus curiae, literally meaning friend of the court in Latin, will be on point of law and it will be up to the bench to decide whether or not to admit such information while adjudicating the case.
The two-member bench had on Monday started hearing criminal contempt proceedings against the office bearers of the union, that has called the strike, for ignoring a stay order on the agitation. “You are causing huge loss to the nation. Tell us who will pay this bill,” the bench of justice Ahmed and justice Birbal asked both the management and the office bearers of the striking union. “By disrupting the life of our citizens, you are causing a great loss to the nation and the citizens both. This loss has now to be taken from the tax-payer. Citizens will have to pay doubly.”
The management, meanwhile, sought public support for its actions, even questioning if the stir was justified. “Majority of them (striking pilots) draw over Rs 3.88 lakh per month and up to Rs 7 lakh per month, besides other benefits, including free passages,” the state-run airline said in an advertisement released in some newspapers. “Over 10,000 esteemed passengers (are) stranded daily. Over 40,000 inconvenienced so far,” said the airline, asking: “Should financially critical Air India, on government support, succumb to such blackmail?” The airline has also decided not to pay the striking pilots during the duration of their stir and withdraw the free passage on the airline’s flights given to them and their families, sources in the carrier said.
The pilots, meanwhile, wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh again and reiterated their demand for pay parity with former pilots of Indian Airlines, now co-opted into Air India after the merger in 2007, and thorough probe into its alleged financial mismanagement. They have already demanded the ouster of chairman and managing director Arvind Jadhav. But the government has, thus far, fully backed the Air India management, and refused talks till they call off their stir and report back to their stations.