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The Air India Debacle: A Short Overview

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By Anannya Roy Chowdhury:

To fly high is not that easy a task. Not only does gravity become your enemy, but also do other obscurities weigh you down. This was exactly what happened with the idyllic Air India flight management that metamorphosed ghastly; from a bird roaring high up to what it today is… a slum dweller. The story of the debacle of Air India and the current disposition of it is certainly not a happy one. 10 lips are mouthing 10 different things and I too feel that in the basest of manners, the problem has a plethoric angle to it. What I deduced and what you should know (we all know them somehow, but not in the right places) is written along as you continue.

Road to fiasco; a general overview of the problems

Before we start digging deeper and jot down different points that possibly give us linkages to the strikes, it only makes sense to gauge the current situation. News headlines all over the country and the world to some extent are blazing out the event of the massive strike by the members of the IPG, the Indian Pilots Guild that has made the scenario worse for AI (Air India). The already dwindling economy that caused shrunken pay packages, untimely services and an overall mess for the company has exacerbated, owing to this full bodied walk out by the pilots. The situation is not sudden, as is the case with all mutinies that have happened in the past, and over the years that followed the historic tie up between the two major Indian Aviation services, the Air India and the Indian Airlines have witnessed sequential falls that summed up to the monster it is today. The following few points can be rightly asserted to the ultimate fall of AI —

  • Social organization: This is indeed one of the biggest problems that posed a threat to AI. Instead of being a capitalist institution or at least adopt a few principles of it, AI till today continues to be a strictly public sector. This cringes down its profit value.
  • Continued benefits in times of crunch: Now, this might come as a biased point but the whole point of downsizing or facing an economic upheaval makes no sense if, at the same time, top employees keep getting richer! Unnecessary reimbursements for them proved to a gargantuan set back.
  • Lack of international tie-ups: Unlike other successful aviation companies such as Lufthansa and the Emirates, AI never initiated such link-ups, making it a solitary player and now a solitary loser.
  • Too many recruits: Although in the short view, a high recruiting rate indicates better popularity; in a situation as what AI is in, it fails to provide work to the all-huge army of talented pilots and other employees that it calls on board. As a result, the company profile goes down, along with the spirits of the hundred plus pilots who work there.

These were the generic reasons and now let us look at the cause that ignited this mini mutiny. But before that there are a few things that you ought to know to make the understanding of the complex situation somewhat easier.

Before 2008, there were primarily two aviation bodies in India, (of course excluding the dozens of private companies), namely the Air India and the Indian Airlines. The former was the international carrier flier while most of the domestic tagging was done through the Indian Airlines planes. With the tie-up, it came under one joint administration that had top members from both the individual sectors.

  • IPG: the Indian Pilots Guild is one of the oldest and most reputed of all pilots’ associations, and was formed by the working pilots of the AI of the pre-merged state.
  • ICPA: Short for Indian Commercial Pilots Association, it is the parallel body from the pre-merging state of the Indian Airlines.

While these two bodies continue to remain, their existence is shaky for all practical purposes following the administrative tie up.

The IPG vs. ICPA conflict, Survival of the Fittest

Historically, the pilots of AI were paid more than the ICPA members, while the latter received an equal and sometimes greater advantage in terms of faster, time-based promotions and longer sick or personal leaves. These distinctions were constructed completely by AI administrators, thus causing a general discontent among the likes about its unfairness. A point in favour of AI went due to their wider exposure to airplanes with innate training and polishing with wide-bodied jetliners and Boeings.

The discrepancies were, in a way, balanced before the merge but after it, things changed. When AI recently took delivery of the Boeing 787s, there was a huge hue and cry over who should be given the greater preference in piloting them.

First hand treatment of the strikes; a take on the Media 

Owing to the above-discussed situation, some odd 150 pilots of the IPG feigned sickness and refused to pilot the planes. On this account, after following a methodical investigation (doctors actually went and personally examined the sick pilots) by the ministry, Ajit Singh (the Aviation minister) decided to call it off by sacking 10 pilots who got busted by the investigation. It was alleged that IPG forgot the basic rules of conducting a strike and it was heralded “illegal”. IPG’s demand for complete riddance of ICPA pilots from piloting the 787 Series came out as a base and greedy move. The media followed these exchanges closely, but the sad fact was that neither party actually initiated conflict-management and discussions, and most of the verbal exchanges were done through the media.

What the ICPA had to say

In the simple sense, why should they be dealt as refugees in their own lands? This is precisely what ICPA had to comment on the uncanny strikes by IPG. Just because IPG is traditionally the coherent union under AI does not mean that pilots from ICPA should not be given a chance to pilot the Dreamliner. A move such as preventing ICPA pilots from flying 787s would certainly slack a chunk of their careers! Also, they said most of the comments made by IPG revolving around the dismissal of ICPA were gross overreactions.

IPG’s take

Now, this is where the side taking comes. Although I was convinced by the former set of justifications, mostly because the master tool, Media propagated the same, after going through their side of the story I feel it was too gore to call the Union greedy. Somehow from the beginning of its instillation, ICPA pilots have gotten an upper hand on an overall basis and hence, giving them the parity in flying the Boeings seemed discrimination redefined. Also, one of the logics that IPG bases its renunciation on is the fact that the commanders with ICPA do not have a practical knowledge about widebody jets, and hence training them will only cause harassment, which is totally baseless because trained pilots already do exist.

Among other demands, the IPG has also expressed its dissatisfaction over discriminatory treatment of its pilots, compared to the ICPA. IPG has, for a long time now, been facing problems with respect to employee treatment. For example, IPG pilots are bound to penalising for availing their sick leaves or casual leaves, while their ICPA counterparts enjoy advantages of having more leave allotments. While IPG pilots were earlier paid greater wages, almost as a form of compensation for these inequalities, however, ICPA pilots were given pay rises in order to appease them during the strikes last year, a situation, when viewed now, only increases the discriminatory treatment between the two associations. The strikes were thus a cumulation of unmet demands of the IPG pilots, the ones mentioned above being only a few of the many other grievances voiced by them.

No matter what sides we take or stay neutral over the issue, the point that remains stoned is that due to this mess, it is the general public and the employees themselves who are adversely affected. When the company is losing a few odd crores each day, the problem of No Salaries still remains. Strikes are only aggravating the concern and hence, it makes all the sense to talk…now how tough can that be is a question left unanswered.

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