Air India and the art of pulling defeat from jaws of victory

The court-mandated end to the Air India strike is not good for the future of the airline of its real owners - the taxpayers.

R Jagannathan December 20, 2014 09:56:30 IST
Air India and the art of pulling defeat from jaws of victory

As a people, we prefer lose-lose non-solutions and fudge to hard-fought, principled compromises.

This is precisely what has happened with the Air India strike, which is ending on the intervention of the Delhi High Court. While Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh claimed that the court's decision "endorsed" the ministry's stand that the pilots should return to work unconditionally, the pilots thanked not Singh, but the court for being let off the hook. This means their return is actually not quite unconditional, and they claim they are not returning to work on Singh's terms, but the court's.

"We the pilots of Air India and members of the Indian Pilots Guild (IPG), on the intervention of Hon'ble Justice Ms Reva Khetrapal of the Hon'ble Delhi High Court, have started the procedure to resume work," the IPG (a derecognised union)said.

The striking pilots have not lost, even if they haven't quite won, but everyone else has lost: the airline has lost customer goodwill (if ever there was any), the civil aviation ministry has lost credibility (Ajit Singh has had to eat crow), the taxpayer has lost oodles of money (but there's no one to lament this) and the airline's consumers have been dumped by the wayside (they will now take their business elsewhere, if they can).

Air India and the art of pulling defeat from jaws of victory

Did the pilots show any kind of sympathy for thousands of stranded passengers when they decided to call in sick by the hundreds in early May?AP

This is the only construction one can put on a decision where a totally uncalled-for strike is ended after 58 days, after inflicting a Rs 600 crore loss in the midst of a serious downturn, and where a court needlessly asks the management of Air India to "sympathetically consider" the reinstatement of the airline's recalcitrant employees.

Why should the Air India management be "sympathetic" to pilots who undertook coercive industrial action by feigning illness just because they wanted other pilots to be kept out of training on the new Boeing Dreamliners? Sympathy is a euphemism for reinstating pilots who deserved - and got - the sack.

Did the pilots show any kind of sympathy for thousands of stranded passengers when they decided to call in sick by the hundreds in early May?

Did the pilots show any kind of understanding that an airline that is being bailed out with Rs 30,000 crore of taxpayer funds should not have been traumatised with industrial action? At the very least, they should have eschewed confrontation till the airline returned to some degree of health.

Did the pilots show any kind of remorse for lying through their teeth on their alleged sickness?

Of course, the pilots will reply that they have genuine grievances - over pay, over seniority, over service conditions and parities in a merged airline, over a hundred other things.

Nobody needs to minimise the mess created by Praful Patel when he mindlessly pushed the merger of Air India with Indian Airlines without sorting out the human resources angle in any merger. Nor should one minimise the poor quality of management Air India has had - with bureaucrats rather than professionals from the airline industry running the show.

On the other hand, can the pilots - or any Air India employee - deny that they have always held the airline to ransom primarily because they worked for a public sector company, where harsh action is seldom taken, since the state is supposed to be an exemplary employer?

Here's a laundry list of why the pilots' decision to call off the strike is not a victory - as an Economic Times headline claimed today - but a disaster for everyone, including the pilots.

First, it is not clear if the pilots will be apologising for anything or giving any guarantees that they will not repeat their actions in future. Without such an undertaking, the agreement to end the strike is not worth the paper it is written on. The government should be "sympathetic" only if the pilots apologise in writing for their misdemeanours.

Second, if the pilots' demands are going to be heard sympathetically, and if most of them are going to be reinstated, the IPG would effectively have got away with murder despite its derecognition. Who will pay for the indiscipline involved in hundreds of pilots reporting sick? Who will calculate and pay for the long-term damage inflicted on the airline's reputation - already tattered - and demand reparations? Just as political parties are fined by courts for destroying properties during a bandh, IPG must be asked to pay the price by deducting pay from its members' pay-packets over the next five years before it is recognised.

Third, nothing has really been solved one way or the other - none of the issues raised by the IPG, nor the ministry. Even more basic, questions about the viability of the airline have not been addressed - which includes implementing the Dharmadhikari report on HR issues, downsizing the airline, etc. Acceptance of the revival plan for Air India should have been the bottomline for reinstating the pilots.

Fourth, the most worrying aspect of the whole strike is the willingness of courts to broker deals that are essentially anti-taxpayer. The Delhi High Court should merely have heard the case on merits, and not issued any specific direction on dealing with the pilots demands "sympathetically". While the court has indeed asked the pilots to sign affidavits, the fact is it has also asked the airline management to consider the pilots' grievances, including reinstatement of 101 pilots who were given pink slips for failing to turn up for work. Moreover, the court wants to know what happens at the conciliation meetings between management and pilots to be held under the auspices of the labour commissioner.

Why should courts reward pilots with reinstatement and conciliation when the management was only enforcing employee discipline by sacking pilots who were holding the airline and customers to ransom?

The end of the Air India strike is not the end of Air India's travails. It is only the beginning - unless the management and the ministry rediscover their spines and force the pilots to see reason.

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