Over 400 pilots of Air India have ended their 58-day agitation after the Delhi High Court ordered them on Tuesday to resume work immediately and asked the airline’s management to look into their demands. All this while, the civil aviation ministry, now led by a very firm Ajit Singh, was adamant that it would not bow to pressure tactics, and even terminated the services of some 100 pilots. The agitation had caused the debt-ridden airline’s losses to increase and had further corroded its brand equity, the ministry had alleged. Also, pilots in Air India have frequently struck work for reasons that cannot but appear trivial to observers. However, in this case the immediate causes of the pilots’ grievances are genuine and cannot be ignored forever. The striking pilots were those who worked for Air India, the international carrier that was merged with Indian Airlines, the domestic carrier, in 2007. Before the merger, since Indian Airlines had more aircraft, promotions there could be faster. Indian Airlines pilots often had the same designation as an older and more experienced Air India pilot. So long as the two didn’t fly together, that wasn’t a problem. Air India pilots were deployed on long-haul flights and Indian Airlines pilots on short-haul, mostly domestic, routes.
The current stand-off started when it was time to train pilots for flying the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, 27 of which will be inducted in Air India’s fleet over the next few years. Flying these long-haul aircraft is highly lucrative because pilots get generous allowances to stay abroad. It also improves their prospects of finding jobs with other airlines, both in India and abroad. Since the order for these aircraft was placed before the merger, Air India pilots were hopeful that they would get to fly them. Their hopes were dashed when the ministry said that both Air India and Indian Airlines pilots would get to do the job. Thanks to the uneven promotions policy, Air India pilots with seniority in terms of years of service fear that they will play second fiddle in access to Dreamliner cockpits to Indian Airlines pilots with seniority of rank. Eight pilots together fly the Dreamliner; so 27 aircraft would require 216 pilots. The ministry wants the slots to be divided equally between the two erstwhile airlines. Such arbitrariness is, clearly, unfair.
Mr Singh should realise that this and similar problems will recur unless the cadre issue is resolved properly. One solution, suggested by the Expert Committee on HR Issues of Merged Air India, led by D M Dharmadhikari, in its report of January this year, is two cadres of pilots: one for long flights and the other for short flights. Most pilots originally from Air India will be in the first lot, and most from Indian Airlines in the second. Each cadre would have its own salary and promotion structure. The Dreamliner solution of the ministry clearly doesn’t gel with these recommendations, similar to the model adopted following high-profile mergers elsewhere, such as that of KLM and Air France. Minimising internal conflict should be a priority for the management and the civil aviation ministry; if Mr Singh does not act fast on the committee’s recommendations, he should find some other solution that avoids arbitrariness and unfairness.