When Air India was denied a place in the Star Alliance last summer, one of the reasons cited were claims from some of the airline’s pilots that the company was coercing them to fly longer hours than the terms of the contract required. The airline currently still owes many employees, even ex-patriot pilots, tens of thousands of dollars in back wages as the company struggles to stay afloat. A year ago, some simply wrote all these claims off to disgruntled employees in search of a fresh contract.
In early May, however, members of the Indian Air Pilots Guild (IAPG) representing the 440 original Air India international pilots struck the carrier, claiming Air India management had botched the integration process during the 2007 merger of Air India, operating mostly Boeings, with domestic carrier India Air, flying mostly Airbus equipment. In addition to a host of safety issues, the IAPG said management began offering the original India Air pilots priorities on promotions and pay. Crews from the original India Air, about 660 additional pilots, are still represented by the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA), adding fuel to rumors that the goal of Air India management is to eliminate the smaller union. The arrival soon of Boeing 787s to Air India that will be shared with both pilot groups has further inflamed the problem with IAPG pilots, who claim they’ve been left out of much of the negotiations.
An IAPG spokesman, Tauseef Mukadam, a Boeing 737 captain at Air India Express, said the company has had no talks with these pilots since the job action began. The IAPG and the ICPA pilots groups have also not spoken to one another. On June 24, IAPG pilots raised the stakes when they began a hunger strike for recognition of their grievances. Mukadam said, “11 pilots in each base, Bombay and Delhi, will take nothing but water until doctors tell them they must eat to live. Then new pilots will take their places. In a show of solidarity, all IAPG pilots fast during the day, every day, and take nourishment only at night.” IAPG pilots claim they will remain on strike, at least until management engages with their group.
A source told AIN that another reason government-run Air India refuses to talk to the IAPG group is so it can offer the old Air India routes to rival carrier Jet Airways, which did have extra capacity prior to the strike. In early May, the source said, “Air India offered 4,000 daily seats. Now that number has dropped to 1,000 per day.”
Because of a shortage of pilots, 14 Air India Boeing 777s are sitting idle at Delhi during the dispute with daily Air India loses being absorbed by the Indian taxpayer. An agreement between the IAPG and the International Federation of Air Line Pilots (IFALPA) prevents any other unionized crews, even ex-patriot pilots, from accepting any Air India work.