Air India Pilots Continue Brawl over 787 Flying

 - May 21, 2012, 1:25 PM
The first Air India Boeing 787 rolls out of the manufacturer’s Charleston, S.C., factory. Some 200 of Air India’s pilot have struck over the right to fly the new widebodies. (Photo: Boeing)

Cash-strapped national carrier Air India, beset by a two-week strike by more than 200 pilots, has canceled service to more than 20 international destinations and is suffering losses of approximately $2 million a day. The strike, which resulted in the termination of 71 pilots, has not affected domestic and short-haul international flights, said a spokesperson.

An ongoing confrontation between the pilots of the former Indian Airlines, which flew domestic destinations until its merger with Air India, and those of the erstwhile Air India, which flew international routes, remains the crux of the problem. Contracted to train on and fly the 27 Boeing 787s on order by the national carrier before the merger, Air India’s original group of pilots are protesting the decision to share the flying with the former Indian Airlines pilots, trained to fly an Airbus fleet.

Although Air India acknowledged that training the Airbus pilots on the 787 would take longer than preparing the Boeing pilots, it readily chose to absorb the additional time and expense, perhaps to strengthen its bargaining position in the future. “The deal was made before the merger,” an Air India official told AIN. “We need to look at the benefit for the airline.”

The striking pilots might now face a dilemma. Service rules stipulate that if a pilot goes on sick leave and does not report to work within 14 days, he or she must undergo a full medical check-up before flying again. The clearance can take months, and the issue will affect Air India’s operations for months to come even in the event of a relatively prompt settlement.

The pilots are now looking to appeal to the Supreme Court, the highest court in India. In the meantime, observers expect the matter to get murkier as questions about the manner in which the merger transpired come into focus.

Even civil aviation minister Ajit Singh conceded recently that the carrier will likely lose $1.2 billion this financial year (ending March 2013). “The merger, in retrospect, was not right…” he said. “Progressive integration of schedules and human resources issues were not addressed,” said Singh.