Air India Stand off Continues, No Lockout, says Ministry

New Delhi, Sep 29 (IANS) With the standoff between agitating pilots and the Air India management showing no signs of easing, the Prime Minister's Office Monday night urged the civil aviation ministry to ensure "speedy resolution" of the crisis in the cash-strapped national carrier. The ministry has denied any possibility of a lockout.

The PMO has asked Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel to ensure "a speedy resolution of the crisis", a PMO source told IANS.

"We do not want the airlines to be hijacked by pilots like the way Jet was, which led to a lot of passenger discomfort," said a PMO source.

The strike entered the third day Monday, forcing cancellation of at least 14 flights, including two international flights, out of the national capital alone.

Civil Aviation Secretary N. M. Nambiar, in a statement Monday night, denied any possibility of a lockout in Air India.

"The committee set up by Air India to look into the demands of the pilots has examined all aspects in consultation with the employees. The disruption of flights is causing immense problem to the travelling public and bringing them discomfort. This must end immediately in the interest of the public. This will also stand the airline in good stead for further government support.

"The Air India management has not taken any decision on PLI cut or any allowance of the unionised section of the employees. The decision regarding the executive employees will be taken only after they are linked to a proper turnaround plan including cost cutting and revenue enhancement. We advise the management to enter into a comprehensive dialogue with all section of the employees," he said.

"In these circumstances, the pilots and all employees must cooperate with the management for the turnaround of the airline," the statement said.

According to a source in Air India, the management is looking at the option to "de-roster all pilots starting midnight".

"The airline wants to take a strong stand and is also looking at the option to suspend all flights for the next 15 days," the source said.

However, a spokesperson of the airline denied this.

"We have not decided on our further action plan yet," an Air India spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Captain V.K. Bhalla, who represents senior executive pilots, said the strike had been "thrust upon the pilots".

Bhalla repeatedly charged the Air India chairman and managing director Arvind Jadhav of "trying to sabotage the airline" since May.

Speaking to the NDTV news channel he alleged that the chairman had told the pilots ahead of Monday's meeting that "we will give you nothing."

He said the pilots were very unhappy with the wage cut, which he claimed worked out to "70 percent".

Earlier, after its talks with the agitating pilots ended inconclusively, the Air India management said it was open for further negotiations and a decision on thorny issues like pilots' incentives would be taken shortly.

"The management is open for discussions on the composition of the committee of executive pilots referred to in the office order dated Sept 27, 2009. Orders have been issued that PLI (productivity linked incentive) and flying allowance of July and August 2009 be disbursed immediately," the airline said in a statement.

The schedule of payment of salary and PLI for the coming months, a contentious issue now between the executive pilots and the cash-strapped airline, will be finalised "shortly" in consultation with financial institutions, the statement said.

The Air India agitation began last week after the management's decision to slash the PLI of employees by 25 to 50 percent as part of cost-cutting measures. The airline's current debt is about Rs.16,500 crore and its losses stood at Rs.7,200 crore in fiscal 2008-09 that ended March 31.

Meanwhile, the pilots threatened to intensify their strike after Monday's talks failed to resolve the impasse.

Jadhav flew in from Mumbai Monday afternoon to meet the pilots. Air India has its head office at Mumbai.

On Sunday, the management had met a section of pilots in Mumbai and agreed to their demands and assured them that a committee would reverse its decision concerning cut in their productivity linked incentives (PLI) and its modalities. The PLI constitutes the major chunk of their salary.

Despite that, the Delhi faction of executive pilots said they would continue the strike till the management also conceded their demand and paid them their last three months' salary arrears and other agreements on wages.

The civil aviation ministry has called a meeting of all airlines Tuesday to discuss the situation.

The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) condemned the national carrier's decision to slash the wages and PLI of its pilots and demanded the government's intervention in the Air India strike.


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Title: Air India Stand off Continues, No Lockout, says Ministry

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